The famous film set designer, Sir Ken Adam, whose futuristic designs inspired both modern day architects and even US Presidents, has died at the age of 95. Ken Adam, originally Klaus Hugo Adam, fled Nazi Germany as a Jewish refugee in the 1930s. He began his career in the British military during World War II, initially as a member of the non-combatant Pioneer Corps and later as an RAF pilot. He flew Typhoon fighter-bombers against German installations and armoured columns on D-Day and before. Adam held a German passport, which would have probably got him executed as a traitor if he had been shot down – in addition to his home nation trying to kill him as a Jew.
Adam had been studying architecture before the war with a plan to be involved in film design. He began as a draftsman in 1947 working on various films before making his name in 1956 on the screen version of the Jules Verne classic, Around the World in 80 Days starring David Niven. While Adam’s period set design for period piece films such as Barry Lyndon (1975) and The Madness of King George (1994) won him his Oscars, it the futuristic sets for Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war comedy Dr Strangelove (1964) and, on a larger scale, the James Bond movies that he is most remembered for.
Famously, so impressed was President Ronald Reagan with Adam’s “war room” design in a scene in Dr Strangelove that when Reagan achieved office in 1981 he was disappointed to find out such a war room did not actually exist. Similarly, the sets for the James Bond extravaganzas are known to have inspired famous architects such as Sir Norman Foster and Richard Rogers.
While Adam’s designs in James Bond’s first film adventure Dr No (1962) were lauded, it was probably the Fort Knox gold repository set of Goldfinger (1964) that first brought him to world attention, and many thought that he had actually been inside. Adam also had a hand in the design of some of the gadget-filled cars, including 007’s Aston Martin DB5, which first appeared in Goldfinger. Later he designed the vintage convertible automobile/aircraft in the film version of Ian Fleming’s children’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).
Adam followed up Goldfinger with a massive set for the Bond adventure You Only Live Twice (1967) involving a space launch site operating from inside a volcano. While there were a few detail errors including a retractable roof which looks from below as it is made of paper, and some very weedy flames coming out of the rocket’s nozzles, nevertheless Adam’s spectacular set remains hugely impressive. While its plot sometimes stretches credibility, at the very least in terms of logistical logic, You Only Live Twice remains a very enjoyable and even visionary film whose plot involved vertically landing rocket stages which are supplied by the Chinese but operated, on their behalf, by the evil organisation SPECTRE. The film’s massive set was also the forerunner for Adam’s excellent huge interior set for a submarine-swallowing ship in The Spy Who Loved Me (1976), which even resulted in a special film stage being constructed.
SpaceX leader Elon Musk was obviously inspired by both these movies. The reusable rocket stages of You Only Live Twice have effectively now become reality via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 design. However, while Musk has yet to get a volcanic lair, or even a white cat like that of SPECTRE villain Ernst Stravo Blofeld, he did purchase the converted Lotus Esprit submarine car (also an Adam design) from The Spy Who loved Me with a view to getting it to run on the road.
Adam’s final Bond set in the subsequent and somewhat overblown Bond adventure Moonraker (1980) was his last film design for 007. While earlier James Bond films often stretched credibility, Moonraker‘s all-too-unbelievable-plot included a large, somehow secretly constructed, space station in low Earth orbit, with space shuttles being launched from a secret Amazonian base.
Ken Adam moved onto period films, for which he won his Oscars. However, his connection with 007 did not end completely. He joined the computer era as a key designer for the 1990s James Bond video game Goldeneye Rogue Agent.
Adam received an OBE for his work in 1995 and was knighted in 2003. He remains influential to this day.
We give our salute to this inspirational set designer and our condolences to his family and friends.