Legendary production designer Ken Adam died Thursday, March 10th, at the age of 95. Known for his Academy Award-winning work on films like The Madness of King George and Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, the designer also served as a lynchpin in seven James Bond films during the ‘60s and ‘70s. His characteristically vast and futuristic designs can be seen in this collection of some of his sketches for his Bond and Kubrick sets.
Born in Berlin in 1921, Adam spent many of his formative years in London where he studied architecture and eventually served as a pilot for the Royal Air Force in World War II. It was after the war that Adam took up art directing for the big screen.
Whereas most movie sets of the time utilized small-scale, flimsy backdrops and architecture, Adam famously took a sky’s-the-limit approach. “Really my first thought was, let’s forget the old way of making sets with wood paper and that sort of thing, and try making them for real,” said Adam in the documentary short Designing Bond’s World. His full-scale, full-substance set design can be seen in the experimental geometry and depth of his Bond lairs (the Fort Knox set in Goldfinger and the volcano set in You Only Live Twice) as well as his war room for Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. “Once I began to understand the director’s concept, I started experimenting, not for the sake of it, but when I felt I could add something and then came up with a slightly different concept that I would then discuss with the director, ” said Adam in a conversation with his biographer Christopher Frayling. “I sometimes think I was slightly crazy. I think I was unbelievably courageous to do things like the volcano in You Only Live Twice and what not, but I also think there must have been a slight element of madness.” Adam’s experimental if slightly unhinged touch could also be seen in some of Bond’s distinctive gadgetry, including the Aston Martin in Goldfinger. “The ejector seat was an idea that came from my days as a pilot,” Adam told the Los Angeles Times in 2015.
But the towering scale of Adam’s sets didn’t overshadow his eye for meticulous detail. “He did more for production design than anyone else by the quality of his designs,” said Adam’s biographer Christopher Frayling to The Guardian. “About halfway through the Bond films, they were actually constructing the scripts around his sets.” Adam’s sets were so impressive in scale and realism that he was occasionally met with confusion from critics. In interviews, Adam recalled several incidents in which critics thought he was actually inside the restricted confines of Fort Knox during the making of Goldfinger or, yes, even inside of an actual volcano for You Only Live Twice. As he told the Los Angeles Times: “One critic asked, ‘How did you ever get inside the volcano?’ I didn’t get inside the volcano! I think that is the function of a film designer, to create something which the audience has never seen.”
All photos courtesy of the Ken Adam Archive and Deutsche Kinemathek.