The death of Sir ken Adam is a great loss throughout Bond fandom as well as within the film world. It can easily be said that he alongside Terence Young, Maurice Binder and John Barry were most responsible for the many of the iconic staples we’ve come to expect from the Bond film franchise.
Terence Young in his role as the first Bond director transformed a rugged looking Scotsman into a well dressed gentleman that was smooth and sophisticated whilst Maurice Binder created the most famous and iconic image in cinema history, the gun barrel along with a title sequence proclaiming ‘Sean Connery as James Bond 007 in Ian Fleming’s Dr No’. Binder’s colourful title sequence images were accompanied by the sound of a theme composed by Monty Norman but arranged by John Barry who gave the audience of the 1960’s a theme that was played on a broken guitar and is now the most recognizable theme tune in the world.
Still even with all these elements in place, the exotic spy thriller universe of 007 needed a man who could bring the sets and locations to life in a way that could resonate with contemporary audiences. James Bond can later be seen walking through, sleeping in and eating in and eventually blowing up places that were designed by the legendary Sir Ken Adam.
Ken Adam relocated to England with his family at the age of 13 after the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany 1934. He eventually went on to study architecture at the Bartlett School of Archtecture before joining the RAF (Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve) as a fighter pilot risking is life for his adopted country. If Adam had been captured during any one of his missions, the Nazis would have executed him as a traitor.
He began his film career in the late 40s finding work as a draughtsman for various British films before working as an assistant art director, art director, and then earning the highly touted role of production designer where he made his career as well as an indelible mark in the film industry.
Sir Ken contributed iconic sets that defined and set the standard for everything that was in fashion at the time during the 1960’s while also taking it to another level, giving it somewhat a futuristic feel. For Dr No he designed the ‘1 million dollars’ aquarium, alongside with the control room for Crab Key and the iconic room where Professor Dent was confronted by a tarantula.
The designs of these sets were unique but instantly screamed the 1960’s. Looking back at Ken Adam’s work, the films he did
prior to Bond tended to be period dramas. In 1960 he designed the set for ‘The Trial’s Of Oscar Wilde’ that was produced by none other than Cubby Broccoli.
In 1964 Ken Adam returned for the third Bond film Goldfinger, which featured the ‘Cathedral of Gold’. Without having any access to Fort Knox he had to design the interiors from scratch and envisioned it to be a network of steel and granite with stacks of gold bullion stored in cages and behind bars. This vision that Adam had created gave the audience a false image of what Fort Knox actually looked liked. The truth being that what Adam designed wasn’t that far from what the interiors actually looked like.
Not only was Ken Adam responsible for the set designs but he also designed the gadgets on Bond’s famous DB5 by taking great note and detail on what Fleming had written in the novel, even though the car in the novel was in fact a DB3. Interestingly the design for Goldfinger in my opinion didn’t seem as futuristic as the designs of his other Bond films. Instead, it was just a film for its time.
Ken Adam returned to the Bond universe for 1965’s Thunderball. He gave S.P.E.C.T.R.E their first boardroom, which consists of a mixture of black granite and grey concrete alongside with electrifying chairs which could be the most memorable set piece of the film.
However Ken Adam could be nicknamed the King of Boardroom designs if you take into consideration his famous “War Room” design from 1963’s Dr. Strangelove. There’s a famous story / rumor that when US President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) had been given his first tour of the White House, he was disappointed to learn that a “War Room” much like the one envisioned by Ken Adam didn’t actually exist in the White White House. Such is the power of movies and such is the influence of the imagination of Ken Adam.
In 1963 he designed the unique and somewhat slightly futuristic looking ‘War Room’ that appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Dr Strangelove’. He would later go on to design some impressive boardrooms for future Bond films.
1967 saw the release of You Only Live Twice, which saw Agent 007 on an exotic mission to Japan. All I will need to say about You Only Live Twice is that Bond fans will always remember the same iconic image from this film. The infamous hollowed out volcano.
The hollowed out Volcano consisted of 700 tones of scaffold to construct at the back lot at Pinewood Studios and could be seen for miles around. At the time it cost a staggering 1 million dollars to construct and had to house a helicopter, tractors, monorails, buggy’s and a rocket eating spacecraft plus a huge amount of extras.
All I can say is that Blofeld appeared to get a lot more for his money than Dr No had with his 1 million dollar aquarium! In 1962 cinemagoers never experienced anything like Dr No before due to its sound, title sequence and exotic locations. 5 years later in 1967 audiences were blown away again by what they’re seeing.
1971 saw the return of Sean Connery as Bond after being tempted back by a large pay packet. Also Ken Adam returned and took Bond into a different decade. For me the most iconic set in that film is a set that wasn’t even designed by Ken Adam but it certainly looks like it was influenced by him. This was the house that doubled for Willard Whyte’s mansion and where Bond encountered Bambi and Thumper. Also known as Elrod House, it was designed by American architect John Lautner and constructed in 1968. Even though it was 3 years old at the time I don’t think it would have looked out of place in 1962 if it appeared in Dr No. The style that John Lautner had created for Elrod House could easily be mistaken for the style that Ken Adam had created solely for the Bond films. Had John Lautner taken inspiration from Adam?
Over the years I have become a fan of 60’s interiors and design and I certainly don’t think I would have been a fan if it wasn’t for Ken Adam’s work on the Bond films.
In 1977 Ken Adam returned for the 10th Bond film, and Roger Moore’s third ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’. Bondologists are very keen to point out the similarities between The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice. Firstly both films featured the same director at the helm while the motives of both villains are pretty much the same. They both use the same method by having equipment to ‘swallow’ things causing havoc and chaos and the threat of war.
Even though The Spy Who Loved Me didn’t feature a hollowed out volcano, it did have a set that might as well have been just as big. This saw the birth of the largest sound stage in the world simply named ‘The 007 Sound Stage’. This was specially designed by Ken Adam to house the huge ‘supertanker set’ with some un-credited expertise from none other than Stanley Kubrick who helped him design the lighting.
The Spy Who Loved Me is widely considered to be a classic, and it’s definitely the most visually pleasing. The design of Atlantis, the villain’s lair, is something that could have belonged to another world and featured yet another boardroom putting Adam’s unique style and design on display, which would have been found in a typical English stately home but with a twist: the huge renaissance paintings that dominate the walls would slide upwards revealing windows as Atlantis is rising from the ocean.
From the very first Bond film, Adam had used the current style and pushed it a little bit further to give it a futuristic look. For
1979’s Moonraker Adam was able to do that to an even greater degree. Moonraker of course was the first and only Bond film to date where Bond left planet Earth and this gave Adam the opportunity to design a space station, which when first seen on film has got be the most beautiful and stunning way in revealing such a thing purely through the use of light.
The actual Moonraker launch pad that is hidden deep in the Amazon jungle has got be an impressive set which harkens back to the design of his earlier films where he strictly made the use of straight lines and minimum usage of curves. In my opinion the design of the villain’s lair in The Spy Who Loved Me consisted of a lot of curves that made it more unusual than previous sets for the Bond Films.
Again Adam gave us another wonderful boardroom which looking back I wished we saw more off and sadly was his last. This boardroom of course doubled for the exhaustion pit of one of the Moonraker shuttles where both the round table and chairs folded down into the floor.
Ken Adam returned to the Bond universe years later for 2005’s EA ‘s video game Goldeneye: Rogue Agent where he used his talents and vision to design the sets and to pay homage of what he had created 43 years previously.
Even though Peter Lamont took over as production designer, Lamont’s designs owe a lot to Adam who set the standard for production design in Bond films. Ken Adam was a visionary and his style is what made the 60’s look even more 60’s.
It wasn’t until Quantum Of Solace and SPECTRE where production designer Denis Gassner paid more of an overt tribute to the work of Ken Adam. In both films the villains lair clearly has that 60’s feel to it. The eco hotel shares the looks of Crab Key, where as Blofeld’s lair in SPECTRE has the feel of Moonraker, Dr No and Diamonds Are Forever.
In today’s world we can easily notice building and think ‘that will look great in a Bond film’ Why? Because it has the same quality and likeness to a Ken Adam design. Ken Adam set the standard for design in Bond films and certainly made production design a more formidable aspect of film making for general audiences to appreciate.
Ken Adam won the Academy award twice for Best Art Direction for Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) as well as for The Madness of King George in 1994. His work continues to inspire architects and designers both inside and outside the film industry.
With my work in the construction industry, I observe buildings every day and frequently come across some beautiful properties. 10 years ago I worked on a huge property where the owner incidentally owned a DB9 and would watch Goldfinger purely for the DB5. My colleague said to me that the house next door looked liked something from a Bond film.
He was right. It was built in the 1960’s for the person who invented the baby bouncer that most homes would have fastened to their door frame whilst the toddler would laugh, bounce and throw up.
Even though it did look like something from a Bond film, the term ‘Bondesque’ just didn’t seem appropriate. The term ‘Adamesque’ was more suitable.
Was the inventor of the baby bouncer a Bond fan or was this just the craze of the 60’s. Like that of Elrod House it made me wonder if Adam had influenced architects or visa mixture versa. All I know is that I had developed the hots for this property purely for it style and design. Regardless if it looked liked it belonged in a Bond film or not but if Ken Adam hadn’t introduced me to his style I wouldn’t have given it a second look.
article by Matthew Grice
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Nice job Matthew. Wasn’t there a Ken Adam documentary as a special feature in one of the films? There’s some great stuff in there with Ken talking in his cool accent. Maybe it was a behind the scenes special for The Spy Who Love Me.
I love all of Ken Adam’s sets, but my favorite will always be Dr No’s base. The aquarium and dining area are gorgeous.
I think Spectre inched back towards Adams-style design, which is great, and long overdue. But Ken will be missed.
Glad to see a little of that style is coming back. A part of Bond died after Moonraker. TSWLM is showing at an old theater in San Francisco in honor of Ken Adam in a couple weeks. I’m overjoyed to be taking my wife to see it.