As the Melbourne Museum opens its exhibition exploring the design at work in creating the sets, suits and shoot-outs of the one and only James Bond, Sophie Davies pays tribute to the legendary production designer Sir Ken Adam, whose vision was responsible for some of the series’ most iconic scenes.
When you think of Bond films, do you imagine sharp suits, kooky gadgets and golden guns? Or is it jaw-dropping interiors that spring to mind, from sexy boudoirs to scary villains’ lairs? While Bond movies are synonymous with cutting-edge style, it’s easy to overlook the talent behind the scenes. Step forward Sir Ken Adam, the inspired German-born British production designer responsible for seven of the seminal Sixties and Seventies films – as well as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – considered one of the greatest production designers of all time.
Celebrating half a century of cinematic ingenuity, the Melbourne Museum’s new exhibition Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style showcases cars, costumes and casinos. For our money, though, it’s Ken Adam’s striking sketches that are the standout, all covetable art works in their own right. Adam – now 92 – describes drawing the interiors as ‘the first step in arriving at a film set.’
Most are black and white, with the odd lick of grey-blue, yellow or green hues, created using felt-tip pens teamed with pencil, watercolours and gouache on paper. They look like moody, charcoal-dark pastel drawings, with bold, minimal lines, speedy diagonals and an almost oriental, calligraphic style. Adam trained at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, after his Jewish family fled Nazi persecution in Berlin. No surprise, then, that his sketches have a strong architectural feel and wouldn’t be out of place on the pages of Wallpaper with their modernist furniture, elegant Shoji screens and smart multifunctional details.
Ken Adam, Fort Knox, 1964 (Click to view full size)
The exhibition’s first room is a glittering homage to the classic Fort Knox set dreamed up by Adam for 1964’s Goldfinger. Wedge-shaped felt-tip Flo-Master pens enabled him to get evocative atmosphere into his one-colour sketch for the space. Although Adam had flown over fortified Fort Knox in a helicopter to gauge its lay-out, his three-level set takes liberties, showing gold bars stacked both behind bars and spread out on the open floor to heighten the glowing effect. Relying on both fieldwork and fantasy, the result is highly stylised, harnessing creative freedom to produce his signature theatrical realism. In a cool touch, Adam even designed the famous steel-brimmed bowler hat which evil Auric Goldfinger’s henchman Oddjob uses to decapitate his victims. Displayed here, it’s also responsible for Oddjob’s electrocution, as he tries to retrieve it from the bars of Fort Knox in a tussle with Sean Connery’s Bond.
Crucially, whether rendering a private jet interior or swish casino, Adam describes his style as ‘slightly ahead of contemporary.’ So for Bond’s boss M’s conference room in Thunderball (1965), the ornate neoclassical hall was given a modern hit with wallpaper that rolled up at the touch of a button to reveal Secret Intelligence Service maps. While Adam picked up on new technology and trends, he didn’t try to be too wacky. His restraint is evident in 1979’s Moonraker, where sci-fi imagery included Bond floating seductively with Dr Holly Goodhead in zero gravity and a functional-looking rocket launch pad. ‘A Bond film is science fact, not science fiction,’ says Adam, who was underwhelmed by the way earlier blockbusters Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) had represented futuristic space concepts in fairly clichéd ways.
Ken Adam, concept art for the laser table, 1964 (Click to view full size)
Adam’s mastery was his ability to realize his sketches as gigantic sets, as the exhibition – created with Bond film company EON Productions – illustrates. A case in point is the Laser Room (1964), a sketch of the laboratory of Goldfinger’s Swiss HQ, where he shows Bond his new industrial laser toy, which cuts through metal. Adam worked with set producer John Stears and German lighting manufacturer OSRAM to bring the scene to life. The same is true of his fantastic images of enemy Blofeld’s command centre in the heart of a volcano for You Only Live Twice (1967). Featuring a central launcher for SPECTRE’s Intruder rocket and a monorail, it was the biggest set built in Europe at the time, and the most expensive – at US$1 million more than the entire budget of Dr No (1962). It took 700 tons of steel and five months to construct at London’s Pinewood Studios. ‘Today you would probably do everything digitally,’ explains Adam. ‘The fact that it was real added an enormous amount to the tension.’
Ken Adam, early concept art for the volcano set, You Only Live Twice, 1967.
Still: Inside the Volcano
Exotic Adam interiors span a Cairo nightclub, an Alpine ski cabin and Blofeld’s henchman Mr Osato’s circular office, featuring rice-paper screens and a rotating desk. ‘I introduced a lot of stainless steel, a tree and a gun in the ceiling that follows Bond all the time,’ said Adam of the decorative sketch from You Only Live Twice, one of his personal favourites. Other exhibition highlights are his sketches of the Lotus Esprit car-turned-submarine for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and the Q-Craft speedboat for Moonraker (1979). It may be Sir Ken Adam’s world, but we’d all like to live in it…
Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style
1 Nov 2013 – 23 Feb 2014
Nicholson Street, Carlton Gardens, Melbourne VIC
Museum website | Exhibition website
By Sophie Davies
Ken Adam, Dr No’s Underground Apt, 1962.
Dr No’s Underground Apt, Living Room. Signed Ken Adam
Copyright Notice – © 1962 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved
Fort Knox by Ken Adam
Copyright Notice – © 1964 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved.
Ken Adam’s concept art for the laser table. Copyright Notice – © 1964 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved.
Ken Adam’s early concept art for the volcano set You Only Live Twice
Copyright Notice – © 1967 Danjaq, LLC & United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved.
Inside the Volcano, SPECTRE’s crews work on the rocket which is being prepared for an attack on a Soviet target.
Copyright Notice – © 1967 Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation. All rights reserved.