Ken Adam Designing the Movies

This post originally ran on February 15, 2011.

Sir Ken Adam, the most influential film production designer of the last half of the twentieth century, is hardly a household name, yet it’s likely that his work is ingrained in your memory. While Adam designed sets for seven James Bond films, the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is by far his most memorable creation. Real life for Adam is almost as adventurous and glamorous as Mr. Bond’s.

Ken Adam on the War Room set of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Born in Germany, Klaus Hugo Adam settled in Britain with his family after fleeing the Nazis in 1934.  As a boy Adam knew he wanted to be a set designer after seeing The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1). Adam’s mother ran a boarding house in London where the young man met the brother of director Alexander Korda, Vincent, an art director himself. It was Korda “who encouraged Adam’s cinematic aspirations and advised him to study architecture”(2).  

During World War II Adam served as a “pilot in the RAF, earning the distinction of being the only German national to fight for the allied force”(1). After leaving the military, Adam was employed at Riverside Studios as a draftsman and “later worked alongside Gone With the Wind production designer William Cameron Menzies, who encouraged Ken to use bold colors and stylized sets”(1). Prior to The Bond Films Adam’s projects included Sodom & Gomorrah, Around the World in 80 Days, and The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1).

While not initially impressed with the script for Dr. No, the first of the Bond productions, Adam saw the exciting possibilities the film offered for depicting the electronic age of the 1960’s (2). Of the sets Adam created for the Bond films, his favorites are Q’s bunker, located inside a Japanese volcano from You Only Live Twice (1967), and the “oil tanker cum nuclear submarine storage facility”(3) from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.  According to Adam, over two hundred “craftsmen worked seven days a week for six months to build the You Only Live Twice volcano”(4).

Ken Adam. Volcano Lair set from You Only Live Twice (1967).

“In-between Dr. No and Goldfinger, [Adam] was hired by director Stanley Kubrick to work on his cold war satire, Dr Strangelove”(1). The project turned out to be more nerve-wracking than the production designer had expected. Adam said of Kubrick, “I don’t think I ever had such a close relationship with a director as I had with Stanley. But he was extremely complicated himself. And in terms of design, he questioned every line I drew”(2). When Kubrick offered Adam the opportunity to work with him again on “2001: A Space Odyssey, Adam turned it down,”(2) and never regretted his decision (1,2). Adam would, however, team up once more with Kubrick in 1975 for Barry Lyndon. Adam’s work on this film would win him the first of his two Oscars. He earned “his second Oscar for The Madness of King George” in 1994 (1).

Ken Adam. Rendering of nuclear submarine storage facility set for The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

In addition to his Oscars, Ken Adam was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2001. In 2008, an eventful year for Adam, he received a “lifetime achievement [award] by the Raymond Loewy Foundation”(1). The same year not only were Adam’s sketches included in the Victoria and Albert Museum retrospective Cold War Modern: Design 1945 to 1970 (4), but his autobiography Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond was published (2).
Like James Bond, Adam too has had his share of glamor and adventure. He met his wife of over 50 years, “Letizia - an Italian beauty”(3), while working on the “The Crimson Pirate on the Italian island of Ischia” (3). During the production of Dr. Strangelove, Adam usually “drove Kubrick to the studio in his E-Type Jaguar, [but] Kubrick wouldn’t allow him to drive faster than 30mph”(2). In addition to his love of sports cars, Adam’s other passion was water-skiing. Adam and assistant Chris Blackwell water-skied in the shark-infested Kingston Harbor while on location shooting Dr. No. Blackwell would go on to establish Island Records (1).

According to Sunday Telegraph editor Horatia Herrod (2), “It becomes clear that [Adam’s] has been a consummate 20th-century life.” Perhaps the Twentieth-century never lived up to Adam’s vision, but we are very fortunate to have his unique concepts preserved on film.


  1. Noakes, T. (2008). Ken Adam: Drawn to the Movies.
  2.  Herrod, H. (2008, September 28). Ken Adam: the man who drew the Cold War. The Telegraph.
  3. Rinaldi, F. (2007, June 21). Adding the flavor: Legendary set designer Ken Adam. Stylus Magazine.
  4. Rawsthorn, A. (2008, October 3). Alice Rawsthorn on Design: The film sets of Ken Adam. The New York Times.

For Further Reading
Adam, K. & Frayling, C. (2008). Ken Adam Designs the Movies: James Bond and Beyond. London: Thames & Hudson.

Ken Adam’s Filmography.

Video Links
Ken Adam, designer - Cold War Modern

Dr. No’s Lair

You Only Live Twice Trailer (1967)

The Making of Dr. Strangelove Part 2

Barry Lyndon: The Seduction Scene

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