Nobody Does it Better

For New Design magazine. Review of the Barbican Centre's Designing 007 exhibition (2012)


Think of James Bond and what comes to mind? The gadgets, the girls, and the guns; the vodka-martinis (shaken not stirred), the tuxedos, and the questionable Roger Moore era safari suits. Bond is a byword for a certain type of style – a fantasy of hyper-masculine Britishness: suave, sophisticated, and, well, just a little bit camp.

This summer, a unique exhibition at the Barbican Centre showcases the design behind 007 from the dust jackets of Ian Fleming’s original novels to Daniel Craig’s snug swim shorts from Casino Royale. Co-curated by Lindy Hemming, long-time costume director of the Bond movie franchise, the show examines the styling of the secret agent and the design of the broader universe of Bond.

The Barbican is a fitting home for the exhibition; there’s something of the super-villain’s lair in the building’s brutalist concrete mezzanines to the extent that one half expects to stumble into a boiler-suited minion when trying to find the toilets. With Bond-themed lifts and, naturally, a Martini bar, this is immersive 007 – but does the show have a purpose beyond being a fanboys’ collection of movie memorabilia? If so, it is to make us think about the design of an icon and the meaning of Bond’s style.

Bond first captured the public’s attention as the protagonist of old-Etonian Ian Fleming’s novels. The paperback issue of the early Bond novels (Casino RoyaleLive and Let Die, and Moonraker) in the mid-1950s came at a time when Britain, still recovering from World War, with an empire in terminal decline and humiliated by Suez, needed a hero: she found it in the shape of Bond, James Bond. 007’s love of branded luxury goods – the champagne, the cigarettes, and the motors – offered a glamorous escapist world for austerity Britain. Plus ça change.

However, it is the screen incarnations through which Bond’s global status has been secured. And Bond producers EON, to mark a half-century since the release of Dr No, have opened their archive to document the creation and development of Bond.

One of the most interesting aspects of Bond’s on-screen life is his interaction with technology. For many, the scenes with ‘Q’, the Secret Service’s head of research and gadgeteer-in-chief, are the highlight of any Bond film. Typically Bond will be shown a number of madcap inventions in Q’s laboratory, including explosive pens, tracking devices and cars with a concealed arsenal of weaponry, that the hero will deploy in the course of his mission.

We enjoy the ingenuity of the contraptions and, as been noted by Bond-critic Martin Willis, acknowledge that central to Bond’s power is his ability to master technology. We are excited by the potential of new devices, particularly in the world of espionage, and, as pointed out by the exhibition’s co-curator Bronwyn Cosgrave, part of Bond’s appeal is that he is always “one step ahead of the contemporary” (a quotation attributed to Bond production designer Sir Ken Adam). It is no accident that the makers of Goldfinger (1964) have Bond’s crown jewels threatened not by the circular saw of the novel, but the cutting-edge (Roger Moore-esque raised eyebrow to camera) technology of the laser beam.

The exhibition shows us various sketches and models for gadgets that mirror the process work one might see during product development at an altogether more conventional design consultancy. Of course, the advantage the Bond prop design team has is that their devices don’t actually need to work. Emergency breathing apparatus used in the underwater scenes of Thunderball (1965) is made from parts of a Sodastream – functionality didn’t matter as long as it looked the part.

The gadgetry develops from the vaguely silly Heath Robinson miniature helicopter ‘Little Nellie’ of the Connery era (You Only Live Twice (1967)) to the Pierce Brosnan films when Bond’s relationship with tech reached its zenith (or, possibly, nadir). The invisible car of Die Another Day stretched credulity to breaking point and increasingly blatant product placement made Bond into a devotee of branded consumer luxuries – think Phillips shavers, Ericsson mobile phones and Omega watches.

It is perhaps the cars that are most fondly remembered. We have a model of the amphibious Lotus Esprit from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). However, the real star must be the full-size Aston Martin DB5 that welcomes visitors to the exhibition. First seen in Goldfinger, this car, souped-up with revolving number plate, oil-slick generators and machine guns, set the standard for Bond vehicles and celebrated the rugged elegance of British automotive design.

Bond was famous for getting around, by which, of course, I mean his adventures took him to various foreign locations. The typical Bond film will take us from the leather and oak of M’s office to deserts or ski-slopes via the kitsch glamour of the casino. All of these locations are reflected in the Barbican exhibition, but the real interest is in the set designs, particularly in the wonderful drawings of Sir Ken Adam.

Adam drew the concept art for Bond sets from Dr No  (1962) to Moonraker (1979). His semi-futuristic sets that relied, in his words, on equal parts of “field work and fantasy” were responsible for creating the quintessential feel of the Bond universe. Super-villain Blofeld’s volcano base from You Only Live Twice is based on Adam’s drawings (the originals of which are on show) and is surely the most enduring, most oft-parodied of all of Bond villains’ lairs.

Fashion in the world of James Bond is typified by a culture of excess; a version of glamour that flirts with the kitsch and the camp. Amongst the fashion pieces featured here are specially commissioned costume recreations (overseen by Lindy Hemming), including Goldfinger’s golden dinner jacket and Pussy Galore’s golden waistcoat, as well as a number of originals such as the white tuxedo worn by Roger Moore in Octopussy (1983) and his spacesuit from Moonraker.

From his genesis in Fleming’s stories, Bond and style have always been interlinked. In the words of prolific writer on 007 Christoph Lindner, “Bond emerges at a turning point in British post-war history… during its decline as a superpower and its reinvention as a swinging mecca for music, fashion, shopping and youth culture.” Even for Fleming, writing on his beachfront veranda in the Caribbean, Bond was part throwback to a time when Britain still played a key role in global affairs, and part celebration of the country’s newfound prominence as a centre of style.

Walking through the Barbican galleries, re-imagined exquisitely by architect Ab Rogers specially for the exhibition, the visitor absorbs fifty years of the Bond universe. Whilst the showpiece exhibits of a waxwork Jill Masterson, gold-painted on a revolving bed, or a ski-suited action Bond in the ‘Ice Palace’ room are eye-catching, it’s the details of the production materials, the sketches and storyboards, that really engage.

 “With our exhibition we have tried to make it a little clearer what goes into the design of Bond movies,” explains Lindy Hemming. “Here gathered are all the various design procedures that are involved in producing a single frame of film.”

Hemming’s co-curator Bronwyn Cosgrave agrees: “This exhibition is perhaps the only Bond production where Bond is a supporting character; the sets, costumes and gadgets are today considered equally as iconic as the man himself – that’s really what we wanted to illuminate.”

With the release of the 23rd official Bond movie Skyfall approaching this autumn, now is an opportune moment to reflect on 50 years of Bond on film; five decades through which, as far as style and design are concerned at least, 007 has managed to keep the British end up.