Ken Adam: Designing 007

Draw a Venn diagram making up the formative influences on the James Bond series, and a sizeable slice would be taken up by legendary designer Ken Adam.

German born Sir Ken Adam OBE and his Jewish family escaped the Nazis in 1934. He went on to rival James Bond for derring-do exploits in the RAF during WWII, flying Hawker Typhoons on escort duties in bombing runs over Germany.  Post war, he began his film career as a skilled draughtsman. Bond supremo Cubby Broccoli, who had previously hired him for The Trials Of Oscar Wilde, wooed Adam to become art designer for Dr. No. It was to be the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration.

Adam said of Dr. No: “(it) gave me the opportunity to design the film for our electronic age, with a tongue in cheek style.” For Dr. No’s personal quarters, he filled the set with stone walls, a radial fireplace, and lots of antiques – he said he saw no reason why the villain should have bad taste. He recalled one of the screenwriters thought it would be funny if Dr. No had stolen art hanging from his wall. At the time, a painting by Goya had gone missing from the National Gallery. Adam made a reproduction of it for Dr. No’s living room.

In Ian Fleming’s novel Goldfinger, Bond is issued by the motor pool with a brand new 1957 battleship grey Aston Martin DB Mk III. The car had:

“…Switches to alter the type and colour of Bond’s front and rear lights if he was following or being followed at night, reinforced steel bumpers, fore and aft, in case he needed to ram, a long-barrelled colt.45 in a trick compartment under the driver’s seat, a radio pick-up tuned to receive an apperatus called the Homer, and plenty of concealed space that would fox most Customs men.”

For the film, Adam chose the latest Aston Martin model, the DB5. He and SFX man John Stears collaborated to build the ultimate spy-mobile. Whatever gadget was being used determined which car was brought in front of the camera – it was impossible to fit every trick into one vehicle. The DB5 retained the Homer device (with added radar tracking screen), but now had revolving number plates, an oil spray to the rear, a smoke screen, a bullet-proof shield, machine guns, a tyre scythe, and every little boys favourite from the corgi replica – a passenger ejector seat. This inspired the following great exchange in this clip:

The car is so iconic it was brought back as Bond’s off duty car of choice for both Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig. When Goldfinger was released Paul McCartney even bought himself one. Adam created several spectacular sets for Goldfinger, considered by many as the gold standard of the series.  The most audacious was his imagining of the Fort Knox Gold depository in Kentucky. Adam like the idea of gold ingots stacked up behind bars. He said “The inside of Fort Knox is completely unreal. There’s no place like that, any more than the war room I designed for Kubrick’s  Dr. Strangelove exists.”

“There was something sombre in these sets, and the thing that must have influenced me was the German Expressionism I grew up with – films like Dr Caligari and so on… In the end I was pleased that I wasn’t allowed into Fort Knox because it allowed me to do whatever I wanted.”

Goldfinger’s Rumpus room is another delight, with a revolving pool table / control console, lowering security shutters and giant map, and secret gas sprays. Adam said the latter gadget was emotional for him to create, given what happened to many of his families friends during the war.

The film famously featured the first functioning laser in a film, where Bond is in danger of being split down the middle by the deadly ray. Adam consulted with the same Harvard scientists who helped with the design of Dr. No’s reactor. In reality, the beam became invisible under the studio lights, and the effect was achieved practically. An oxy acetylene torch burned solder in the already split table Sean Connery was strapped to. Adam designed the entire apparatus.

If Goldfinger began the Bond series love affair with gadgets, Thunderball was Cubby Boccoli and Harry Saltzman’s pampered mistress, positively dripping with them. The Aston Martin returned, with additional Adam extras. For SPECTRE HQ, he swept aside the conference table idea and instead had two rows of chairs with individual consoles, which Blofeld could have disappear under the floor and return empty, having electrocuted those occupants who displeased him. The villain Emile Largo got a fabulous two piece yacht / gunboat catamaran, called the Disco Volante. A hydrofoil was purchased for $10,000.00 and refitted to Ken Adam’s design.


“Your new lair is up and running.”

” Is it a hollowed out volcano, like I asked for?”

Think of a Ken Adam Bond set, and you will probably think of the volcano lair from You Only Live Twice. Adam and Broccoli were flying over several volcanoes on Kyushu, Japan, location scouting. This seemed a more exciting base than the coastal castle of the novel, which in actuality was proving difficult to realise, as Japan didn’t have any. Cubby said to Adam, “If I give you a million dollars, can you do it?”  Adam rose to the challenge.

“I went really big. I decided to build the lake (false top) out of fibreglass – it was 70 ft in diameter, and I knew it had to open up in order for the helicopter and space rockets to get in and out. So it was no longer a normal film set. We built it on the back lot of Pinewood. Cubby and Harry’s theory was that we were not trying to cheat the audience. Whenever we could make things for real, we should make things for real. you have 200 stuntmen sliding down ropes from the top and the audience knew it was real. I think that was part of the success of those early Bond films.”

For the astronaut training centre in Diamonds Are Forever, Ken Adam designed a moon buggy which Bond hijacks to escape from the villains. He also created the futurist home of recluse Willard Whyte, featuring an indoor / outdoor pool.

The massive 007 stage at Pinewood Studios was  constructed specifically for the interior of the supertanker that swallows whole three super power nuclear submarines in The Spy Who Loved Me. Adam used the structure of the stage itself, dressed to become part of the tanker set.  He consulted Stanley Kubrick on where to place the source lighting on the huge set. The two men spent four hours on a Sunday morning, secretly clambering all around, solving the lighting issue.

Adam also helped design the submersible Lotus Esprit, dubbed “Wet Nellie” after the gyrocopter “Little Nellie” from You Only Live Twice. He already owned an earlier model Lotus sports car, and thought the Esprit lines were perfect for a submarine. He outfitted the car with torpedoes, sonar, fins and so on. In reality, the car was not watertight, and the stunt driver had to wear scuba gear.

Fittingly, Moonraker was a spectacular showcase for Ken Adam’s designs, in what was to be his last James Bond film. For villain Hugo Drax’s space staion, he consulted with NASA, before coming up with the idea of a mobile that rotates – “Very irregular, with these various arms, corridors to satellites, at various angles…each time it started rotating it gave the audience a different aspect, a differnet composition.”


The full scale interior was built on both the James Bond stage and in Paris, where Moonraker also filmed.  “I designed the interior knowing we had to blow up that bloody place. I had briefed Johnny Evans to be careful because I’d used a lot of padded materials. He said “Don’t worry” and of course, the whole fucking thing did go up in flames. We had six Paris fire engines standing by…”

His set may have gone up in flames, but thanks to his inestimable contribution to the series, along with so many other great talents, James Bond is celebrating an incredible 50 years on screen this month. Here’s to keeping the British (design) end up, Sir Ken!






Originally posted 2012-10-01 06:15:22. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Read and post comments on this article