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Meet the Man Bringing Drama and Joy to Brooklyn’s Nightlife Spaces

Push open the right unassuming black door beneath the elevated subway tracks at the Myrtle Avenue/Broadway stop in Brooklyn and you’ll enter a smoky room filled with hazy lights and neon orbs.

Beyond the glowing bar, an arched doorway leads to a checkered dance floor. A regal D.J. booth hovers directly above enormous speakers and a steep double staircase, the centerpiece of a mirrored balcony that refracts every swirling light.

“I reference a lot of churches and spiritual architecture,” said Safwat Riad, who designed the venue, known as Paragon. “The club is a bit of a modern-day church.”

Through his design work for more than a dozen local venues, Mr. Riad, 35, has set a precedent for playful, geometric nightlife spaces that offer a more welcoming ambience than the average dive bar or warehouse party.

He sketches his ideas, warps metal and laser-cuts wood in a studio in Long Island City, Queens.

That’s where he spent the last year or so designing Paragon, a bar, restaurant and dance club that opened in Bed-Stuy in April, and has been drawing crowds with D.J. sets and live performances ever since.

Collaborating with Michael Potvin and Azumi Oe, who designed the lighting, Mr. Riad was responsible for rethinking the space, which has cycled through various incarnations as bars and dance clubs.

Usually when he embarks on a new project, he starts with a sketch, which he uses to create a digital illustration. He puts that into an application that extrudes 3-D renderings from 2-D images. Finally, he transfers the rendering to an application that lets him visualize colors, materials and textures.

John Barclay, who previously co-owned the popular and now-defunct techno spot Bossa Nova Civic Club and now owns Paragon, said that he fell in love with the space many years ago, and when he finally had the chance to reimagine it, he knew he wanted to work with Mr. Riad.

“He can be dramatic with design, which I personally love,” Mr. Barclay said.

“So much of nightlife in New York City right now is based off what has happened in Berlin in the past 20 years,” he added. “Stark, black-and-gray boxes that feel — for lack of a better term — very masculine, and just kind of bleak.”

And it’s true: many of New York’s largest dance venues are in former warehouses or factories that are more likely to resemble airplane hangars than Studio 54.

But Mr. Riad has brought warm colors, graphic shapes and sleek lines to a who’s who of trendy Brooklyn spaces, designing D.J. booths, bars and doorways for dozens of clubs and bars over the last decade.

“When I got into this, there was nothing other than Output,” he said, referring to the famed techno club in Williamsburg that opened in early 2013. “I felt like the nightlife community was not getting the love it deserves. It wasn’t rich with design; it was just very D.I.Y.”

His work, which plays with dramatic silhouettes, artistic cutouts and the occasional cheeky shape — he said that one doorway in Bushwick’s Heaven or Las Vegas was inspired by an ex-girlfriend’s butt — has an unmistakable aesthetic.

“Not everything has to be a square,” he said with a laugh. “It’s fun, it’s well-designed and it’s not too serious — because some design ends up being too pretentious.”

Mr. Riad, who was raised in Alexandria, Egypt, moved to Secaucus, N.J., when he was 15. He came to the United States with his father, who was sent to the tristate area as a correspondent for Al-Ahram, an Egyptian newspaper.

As a teenager, Mr. Riad began commuting into the city, where he found himself enamored of local graffiti artists. By 2010, he was finding his rhythm in the local art scene, but after having a run-in with the authorities, he decided to focus on wood and metal working instead. An artist he assisted soon taught him how to write a contract and let him use his studio.

As he pivoted to design work, he also began researching the history of techno in Detroit, drawing inspiration from the ways that local musicians found beauty in broken machines and decrepit buildings during the late 1970s.

He began visiting queer D.I.Y. and techno clubs and imagining how to meld the musically inspired movement and color of artists like Wassily Kandinsky with the brutalist ideals of architects like Louis I. Kahn.

“Kandinsky always had the vision to paint music,” Mr. Riad said. “And that’s what I wanted to achieve with the Elsewhere D.J. booth,” he said, referring to the popular music venue and nightclub in Bushwick.

“When you’re standing in the middle of the dance floor and you just look at it with all the lights going in and out, it’s literally a painting,” he said.

One of the first nightlife jobs he got was at Mr. Barclay’s Bossa Nova Civic Club, where he was commissioned to design the facade of a D.J. booth.

He was soon working on projects for Output, Elsewhere, Heaven or Las Vegas, Short Stories in the East Village, Greenpoint’s Magick City, East Williamsburg’s Rose Gold, Bushwick’s Mood Ring and the annual techno festival Sustain-Release.

He said that his visits to The Spectrum in East Williamsburg during the early 2010s were particularly formative.

“I walked in and it was so like, slap in the face; the music, the queer people, the drag,” he said, describing the mirror-lined D.I.Y. space. “Queer culture deserves so much more.”

His love for the freedom and joy sparked by nightlife led him to prioritize working with spaces that welcome members of marginalized communities.

“Mood Ring, for example: they’re clearly queer, they’re clearly P.O.C.,” he said. “They just want to create an environment for people to be comfortable in. How can I say no to that?”

Some of his design inspirations are obvious, like the halo and devil tails that adorn the D.J. booth at Heaven or Las Vegas, while others are harder to place, like the “Beauty and the Beast”-esque roses tucked into either side of Paragon’s back bar.

“I did that for all my romantic spirals, because I’ve been through so many break-ups,” he said of the roses. “And then you walk in to the grand arch, which was inspired by Mario Botta.”

But whether he’s evoking the Church of San Giovanni Battista or the Motor City, Mr. Riad is always trying to think about how people will flow through a space.

At Paragon, for example, there’s no way to overlook the D.J. or the dancers as soon as you walk in the door.

“When you’re waiting for a drink, you’re able to see the people in the dance floor,” he said. “So it becomes a machine, almost, of circulating movement.”

As he continues to work on nightlife venues, he’s striving to design more spaces that allow people to experience the liberation that he’s felt on the dance floor, in contrast to what he described as a more restrictive upbringing.

“This was prohibited growing up,” he said. “But I’m in love with it because it’s so cool and free.”

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