Website last updated: 17-7-2024

In Memoriam of Production Designer Ken Adam (1921-2016)

By: Anders Frejdh
Ken Adam Production Designer James Bond
Much like the rest of the Bond world, FSWL mourns the death of legendary production designer Sir Ken Adam (born in Berlin on 5th February, 1921) who designed amazing set pieces for Dr. No (1962), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965), You Only Live Twice (1967), Diamonds Are Forever (1971), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979). We send our deep condolences to his wife and thank him for decades of brilliant Design.

Producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli said in a comment published on “The Bond family mourns the passing of our beloved friend [Sir Ken Adam] who was so responsible for the visual style of the James Bond films from their inception. A genius and a gentleman he will be deeply missed.”

"Deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Ken Adam, a genius and one of the most important figures for the success of the early Bond films with truly amazing set designs. I was lucky to spend some time with the legend over the years and most recently in Norway where FSWL co-hosted an event for the 50th anniversary of Goldfinger in Oslo. Sir Ken was a great storyteller with so many memorable tales about the making of his (seven) Bond adventures. One that comes to mind was the first time I met him, in 1999 at Serpentine Gallery in London where an exhibit was dedicated to his extraordinary work, when he explained the fright in Sean Connery's eyes after realising the security glass wasn't fully protecting him from the sharks in the pool he was in... RIP, sir. Will never forget your kindness, friendship and the remarkable life you had that surely will never be repeated." – Anders Frejdh

"Sir Ken Adam - a friend, a visionary and the man who defined the look of the James Bond films." – Roger Moore on Twitter after hearing about Sir Ken's death.

Norman Wanstall, Academy Award winning dubbing editor who worked on the first five Bond films (plus Never Say Never Again in 1983), remembers working with Sir Ken:

"I’ve always said that Ken is the only person I’ve met in my life who I would call a true genius. I am in awe of his achievements on the Bonds and I honestly believe much of the success of those early films is a result of his stunning creations.

My favourite story about him goes back to Dr No, for which he had to create a set in which Professor Dent picks up a box containing a tarantula. As you will recall, Ken designed the remarkable set in the shape of a dome, and I’ve never forgotten the moment when it came up in the rushes as everyone immediately burst into applause. It’s not something that ever happens during a showing of rushes and I doubt it’s ever happened on a film before or since. The fact that everyone reacted at the same moment said it all and it could only have happened to a creative genius like Ken. It was a moment in my career that I shall never forget. What a man he was.

As for his volcano set for You Only Live Twice – that was hardly a set but more an engineering feat. I remember how every day we couldn’t wait for lunch time when we’d rush across to see how far the set had grown. None of us had ever seen anything like it before and it took our breath away. It was a true masterpiece of design and construction. I doubt anything as ambitious has ever been created since."

Other Bond alumni paying their respect to Sir Ken:

"Another genius leaves us, hopefully from a secret underground hollowed out volcano lair. RIP and Gods speed, Ken." – David Arnold, music composer for every Bond film from 1997 to 2008

"Oh no, Sir Ken ... another one of the Greats who has left us! RIP" – John Richardson, Miniatures, model effects, special effects and visual effects supervisor on nine James Bond films

"How very sad that Ken is no longer with us. I had a wonderful time in Oslo with him. We seemed to be squashed together in a car for much of the two days we were there celebrating 50 years of Goldfinger. The most interesting time was when we all stopped in a cafe on the waterfront and he started to talk about some of the more dangerous stunts he had been involved with on the Bond films. I remember thinking that if I'd had a tape recorder...! He was a delightful man and I am honoured to have spent this time with him." – Margaret Nolan

"Another sad loss! RIP, Sir Ken." – Pauline Hume, End titles designer on every Bond film since The Living Daylights (1987) and daughter of legendary cinematographer Alan Hume

"One of the giants in his field. If memory serves me correctly I met him briefly at a production meeting at Pinewood in connection with The Spy Who Loved Me." – Rick Sylvester, the man behind the most amazing stunt in film history (the ski parachute jump in TSWLM)

About legendary production designer Ken Adam

Sir Ken (born Kenneth) grew up in a Jewish family as the son of a former Prussian cavalryman. His father owned a fashion retail shop, which enabled Adam to be educated at the Französisches Gymnasium, and the family to have a summer house on the Baltic.

In 1933, however, on the ascent to power of the Nazi Party, Adam watched from the Tiergarten as the Reichstag burned. That same year his father's shop was forced into bankruptcy by actions of the Brown Shirts, and the family agreed to relocate to England.

Adam's family moved to England in 1934, when Adam was 13 years old. Adam went to St. Paul's School in Barnes, attended University College London and Bartlett School of Architecture, training to be an architect.

When World War II started, as German citizens he and his family should have been interned, but Adam had been seconded to design Bomb shelters. He joined the Royal Pioneer Corps, a non-combat support unit that all Axis-citizens who were resident in Allied countries, and deemed not to present a security risk, could join.

In 1940, Adam successfully applied to join the Royal Auxiliary Air Force as a pilot, one of only two German pilots in the wartime RAF. This was a brave move: if he had been shot down and captured, instead of being sent to a prisoner of war camp, the Germans would have been able to hang him as a traitor.

Flight Lieutenant Adam, nicknamed “Heinie the tank-buster” by No. 609 Squadron colleagues for his daring exploits, joined the squadron on 1 October 1943, stationed at RAF Lympne. The squadron flew the Hawker Typhoon, initially in support of USAF long-range bombing missions over NW Europe, and latterly in support of ground troops including at the battle of the Falaise Gap, in Normandy after D-Day.

In 1944, Ken's brother Dennis joined No. 183 Squadron, joining him in No. 123 Wing.

Adam first entered the film industry as a draughtsman for This Was a Woman (1948), and met his Italian wife Maria Letizia while filming in Ischia, whom he married on August 16, 1952. His first major screen credit was as the production designer on the British thriller Soho Incident (1956). In the mid-1950s he went to Hollywood where he worked (unaccredited) on the epics Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959). His first major Hollywood credit was the cult Jacques Tourneur horror film Night of the Demon (1957) and he was the production designer on several films directed by Robert Aldrich. He was hired for the first James Bond film, Dr No. In 1964 he designed the famous triangular Pentagon war room set for Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, although turned down the opportunity to work with Kubrick's next project 2001: A Space Odyssey after he found out that Kubrick had been working with NASA for a year on space exploration.

This enabled Adam to make his name with his innovative, semi-futuristic sets for the James Bond films. The super tanker set for The Spy Who Loved Me was the largest sound stage in the world at the time it was built.

Adam's other notable credits include the cult Michael Caine spy thriller The Ipcress File (1965) and its sequel Funeral in Berlin (1966), the Peter O'Toole version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Sleuth (1972), Salon Kitty (1976), Agnes of God (1985), Addams Family Values (1993) and The Madness of King George (1994). He also acted as a visual consultant on the acclaimed BBC-TV adaptation of Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Adam returned to worked with Kubrick on Barry Lyndon (1975), for which he won his first Oscar®. He also designed the famous car for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), which was also produced by the same team that was responsible for the James Bond film series. During the late 1970s he worked on storyboards and concept art for a new Star Trek film that was in pre-production. The film, known as Planet of the Titans, was eventually shelved by Paramount Pictures.

A member of jury at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980, and the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival; in 1999 the Victoria and Albert Museum held an exhibition entitled "Ken Adam - Designing the Cold War" in which he talked about his role in designed film sets so associated with the 1960s thru to the 1980's.

Naturalised as a British citizen, having been awarded an OBE for services to the film industry; in 2003 under the Diplomatic Services, Ken was awarded Knight Bachelor for services to the film industry and Anglo-German relations, and knighted in 2003 by Queen Elizabeth II.

A selection of Ken Adam's awards:
• 1964: BAFTA Film Award for Dr. Strangelove
• 1965: BAFTA Film Award for The Ipcress File
• 1975: Academy Award for Best Art Direction recreating 18th century England in Barry Lyndon
• 1994: Academy Award for Best Art Direction for work on The Madness of King George

He was also nominated for a BAFTA for Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Sleuth, Barry Lyndon, The Spy Who Loved Me and The Madness of King George. Sir Ken was also nominated for Academy Awards for Around the World in Eighty Days, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Addams Family Values. He also received the Art Directors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.

Sir Ken is survived by his wife of over sixty years, Letizia.

Editor's note:
Read more about Sir Ken in Christoper Frayling's about him and his amazing designs, Ken Adam and the Art of Production Design (2005) and Ken Adam designs the movies: James Bond and Beyond (2008).

Photo above:
Sir Ken Adam at the Royal World Premiere of Skyfall at Royal Albert Hall in 2012. Photo by Sascha Braun. © From Sweden with Love. All rights reserved.

For more information about Sir Ken Adam's amazing career, check out his IMDB profile:



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Founder & Managing Editor: Anders Frejdh