Ken Adam is a legendary production designer who coordinated the visual style of some of the most popular and influential films in the history of cinema. He was responsible for the Pentagon War Room set in Dr. Strangelove, the gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger, and the twisted Gothic mansion in Adams Family Values.
Ken Adam is a legendary production designer who coordinated the visual style of some of the most popular and influential films in the history of cinema. He was responsible for the Pentagon War Room set in Dr. Strangelove, the gadget-laden Aston Martin DB5 in Goldfinger, and the twisted Gothic mansion in Adams Family Values. His work on the James Bond series earned him the epithets ‘the master of paranoia’ and the ‘Frank Lloyd Wright of Deco Noir.’
Films present us with a coherent imaginative world and every facet of that world has to be designed. Sets, costumes, props and even locations have to be created and selected by a design team led by a production designer. The term ‘production designer’ was coined in 1938, when the art director William Cameron Menzies was credited as production designer on Gone With The Wind. Ken Adam was one of the first people in Britain to be credited in these terms, and during his long career he created some of the most iconic sets in film history. Defining his contribution to cinerma, Adam said that the production designer ‘establishes a style and visual progression for the film, and then physically realizes it.’ Adam conducted historical and visual research when working on a new project, exploring museums, archives and architectural monographs. Giovanni Piranesi’s prints of fantastical prisons were favourite sources, often combined with the Modernist aesthetics of the Bauhaus and German Expressionism.
Born in Germany, Klaus Adam grew up in Berlin in the turbulent 1920s. He was an avid cinema-goer and became entranced by the great German Expressionist films The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis. He later said that Caligari had the most profound influence on his career. The young Adam was also aware of the Expressionist painters George Grosz, Otto Dix and Wassily Kandinsky. He also admired the Modernist architects Walter Gropius, Mies Van Der Rohe and Erich Mendelsohn. Throughout his career, Adam’s work was influenced by German Expressionism and Modernism.
Adam was Jewish and when the Nazis came to power in 1933 he his family fled to Britain. He studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture and was articled to an architect who was part of the Modern Architecture Research Group, or MARS as it was known. This organisation was a British descendant of the Bauhaus, and aimed to introduce radical European Modernism to Britain. Adam’s architectural studies were interrupted by World War II and he served in the Royal Air Force. Adam entered the film industry in 1947 and met the famous art director Vincent Korda, who told him to get an architectural education: ‘History, design, composition, draughting. All these will be useful.’ Adam completed his studies and became a fully fledged art director in 1956.
Adam was hired as production designer on the first James Bond film, Dr. No (1962). This was actually a low budget production and Adam only had £14,000 to work with. He created numerous sets at Pinewood Studios in England. With only £500 of the remained, he discovered that he still needed to create the room where Dr. No gives his henchman a tarantula to kill Bond. Adam designed a simple, cell-like room with only one door and no windows. He then added a skylight that cast a spider-web shadow on the floor. This expressionistic use of lighting was cheap, but very effective, and reveals the profound influence on German Expressionism on Adam’s visual style. In this scene, Dr. No is represented as a sinister disembodied voice. This is an echo of the German Expressionist film Dr. Mabuse, in which the arch villain is represented in the same way.
For the private apartment of the film’s villain, Adam adopted a slightly ahead-of-contemporary approach. He created a subterranean bunker decorated in a lavish style combining antique and modern. The interior included a portrait of the British general Wellington by Goya and a magnified aquarium set into the stone wall.
Goldfinger (1964) was the third Bond film and it had a much bigger budget than Dr. No. The climactic sequence occurs within the Fort Knox gold reserve, and this too is a set created by Adam. He envisaged the bullion rooms as a gigantic cathedral of steel and granite. The chamber was stacked high with gold. In reality gold is never stacked more than two and a half feet high because of the weight. In Adam’s design, the gold is tantalisingly stacked behind prison-like bars.
Production designers also create the hardware for films, and Bond movies have no shortage of cars, weapons and gadgets. In Ian Fleming’s original novels, Bond drives a Bentley, but the filmmakers decided to give him an Aston Martin DB5, which expressed the style and social aspirations of the period. The car is laced with gadgets that were not in the novel or the script: they were devised by Adam himself. He came up with the wheel scythe that slashes the tyres of other cars in a sly reference to Ben Hur. He also invented the oil slick, smokescreen and the famous ejector seat (‘Ejector seat, you’re joking!’). Overall, Adam turned Bond’s car into an Andy Warhol-like icon of destructive technology. Of course, after the release of Goldfinger, sales of the Aston Martin DB5 went up by 60%.
The great director Stanley Kubrick admired the visual aesthetic of Dr. No and hired Adam to design Dr. Strangelove (1963), a black satire on the taboo subject of nuclear annihilation. The film was shot during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world really was on the brick of nuclear destruction. The title character is an ex-Nazi nuclear scientist who is working for the Americans and habitually addresses the President as ‘mein Fuhrer’. He is parallelised down one side of his body, but, absurdly, the parallelised side is loyal to the Reich. Dr. Strangelove was played by the great Peter Sellers.
Adam designed the famous Pentagon War Room set. This was a huge triangular space with a circular table and suspended light ring. The table is like a giant poker table were the world leaders play a deadly game for the fate of the world - a brilliant metaphor that highlighted the precarious nature of the Cold War. This shows how production design can communicate the themes of the film to the audience. Adam also created gigantic maps to would track the progress of the nuclear bombers heading for Russia. This motif recurred in his work on the James Bond films.
Adam’s preliminary sketches for the War Room show the evolution of the design. The initial concept was for a two-tier space, but this changed to a cavernous triangular bunker with a circular table and light ring. A triangle is the strongest geometrical form and the walls are treated as reinforced concrete, making the War Room an impregnable nuclear fallout shelter. Steven Spielberg called this the greatest set in the history of cinema. When Ronald Regan became President, he visited the Pentagon and apparently he asked to see the War Room. He was expecting the one in the film, meaning that someone had to tell him, ‘Well, Mr. President . . . ‘
Returning to the world of James Bond, Adam was responsible for the vast control rooms that feature in the most iconic Bond films. For example, he designed a missile silo hidden inside a Japanese volcano in You Only Live Twice (1967). At the time this was the largest set ever built in Europe. The exteriors were filmed on the island of Kyushu, one of many beautiful locations which conceal lethal technologies in the paranoia universe of James Bond.
Adam returned to the Bond franchise in 1977 for The Spy Who Loved Me with Roger Moore. He designed the interior of Stromberg’s oil tanker complete with 3/5 scale nuclear submarines. This was the largest set ever built and it was constructed inside a specially-built stage.
Stromberg’s lair is called Atlantis and features a Renaissance-palazzo dining room with a Botticelli tapestry that slides away to reveal a shark-infested aquarium. It is here that Stromberg disposed of his treacherous female assistant. With lethal wit, Adam conceals this chamber with Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Having already modified Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger, Adam designed another gadget-laden car for this film, the Lotus Esprit that converts into a submersible. The Lotus had been designed by Adam’s friend Colin Chapman and was not yet on the market at the time. Adam found the streamlined body ideal for conversion into a sub-aqua vehicle. He created the Lotus was a practical model – it actually did travel underwater at 7 knots to a depth of 50 feet.
Adam’s last Bond film was Moonraker (1979), which was partly set in space. The villain, Hugo Drax, has a secret launch complex behind the Iguaça waterfalls on the Brazil-Argentina border. Adam designed an interior with strong Mayan influences. However, the Pyramid control room was influenced by Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings.
Adam returned to his Expressionistic influences with his designs for Adams Family Values (1993), in which he designed a twisted Southern Gothic mansion with interiors reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Adam was known as the Master of Paranoia. His work on Bond films and Dr. Strangelove was a response to the post-war climate of Cold War tension. This was expressed in intimidating corporate boardrooms, where global organisations control the fate of the world. He designed cool and depersonalised interiors with looming forms and menacing perspectives. They are Fürhrerbunkers where mad masterminds play games with weapons of mass destruction disguised as consumer goods. As Christopher Frayling put it, ‘the swimming pool has sharks in it’.