Bloomsbury Design Library - Adam, Ken (1921–)
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The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design
The Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Design

Clive Edwards (Editor-in-chief), Harriet Atkinson

Harriet Atkinson is a historian and Research Fellow based at the Royal College of Art. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, Dipti Bhagat, Sarah Kettley, Sorcha O’Brien

Sorcha O’Brien teaches Design History and Theory to Product and Furniture Design students in Kingston University, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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, David Raizman and Anne-Marie Willis

Anne-Marie Willis is a design writer, editor and educator. She is currently professor of Design Theory at the German University in Cairo, Egypt. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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(Subject editors)

Bloomsbury Academic, 2016

Clive Edwards (Editor-in-chief), Harriet Atkinson, Dipti Bhagat, Sarah Kettley, Sorcha O’Brien, David Raizman and Anne-Marie Willis (Subject editors)

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Adam, Ken (1921–)

DOI: 10.5040/9781472596178-BED-A012
Page Range: 6–7

Adam is a production designer, born in Berlin, Germany, although his family moved to Britain in 1933 following the rise to power of the Nazi Party. Adam trained as an architect at the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL. Having served initially at the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, he joined and entered active service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1940 as a fighter pilot. Following the end of his military service, he worked as a draughtsman for a variety of London-based film studios, designing props on a range of projects. This led to a variety of unaccredited roles as a designer on films such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Ben Hur (1959). He was awarded his first credit as production designer in 1959 after work on The Night Demon.

The year 1962 would also mark his first set design work for Ian Fleming’s James Bond series. His first sets appeared in Dr. No (1962) and were significant for the way in which they captured the 1960s zeitgeist. He combined contemporary style with hints of a postmodern, technological future fitted with the narrative of the space race that would dominate the decade. It also set up the language and brand of the James Bond franchise to come, with Adam working on eleven of the first Bond films, his last being Moonraker (1979). The 1960s became a prolific period for him, producing some of his most recognizable work. In 1964 he collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove, implementing the now famous NORAD control room, central to the film and furthering, as recognized by a BAFTA award in 1964, the designer’s reputation as the creator of a Cold War aesthetic.

However, Adam’s work was diverse and not only associated with big budget action. As if to highlight this, he worked on the Michael Caine spy vehicles, The Ipcress File (1965) and the 1966 follow-up Funeral in Berlin that, while using the backdrop of Cold War espionage much like James Bond, depicted a more realistic vision of Britain, challenging the glamour associated with Fleming’s famous creation. Underground lairs in exotic locations are swapped for one-bedroom bedsits in Notting Hill. Indeed, such was the skill with which he depicted the setting for Caine’s downtrodden spy that he was awarded another BAFTA for the work. Adam would go on to work with Fleming again, this time on the fantasy-infused Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), notable for the eponymous fantasy-flying car and showing his ability to work within a variety of styles.

Adam’s work as a designer for film ranged from art director, creating the style and theme of a set, to production designer, working on intricate storyboards and detailing best camera angles for shots during filming. Much of his work is now held by the Deutsche Kinemathek Museum, Berlin, and shows how his work ranged from highly stylized sketches of sets to intricate plans of the individual detail of objects, as seen in his designs for the eponymous car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

The Pyramid Control Room by Ken Adam for Moonraker film, 1979. © AF archive/Alamy

Although his work is mostly associated with the visual style perfected in the 1960s and 1970s, he could also produce highly accurate period pieces such as the depiction of eighteenth-century England in Barry Lyndon (1975) and the 1994 Madness of King George, for which he was conferred an Academy award, albeit later in his career. Adam went on to be associated with some of the biggest names in cinema, and, although some of these projects were never realized, he became a go-to man for major Hollywood directors wanting to achieve often “impossible” visions.

References and further reading

Adam, Ken. “Designing Sets for Action,” Films and Filming. London, August 1956.

Frayling, Christopher. Ken Adam: The Art of Production Design . London: Faber & Faber, 2005.

See also Set Design.