It’s been half a century since the release of 1962’s classic–and the first very first– James Bond film, Dr. No. Nicely timed to this landmark anniversary for the movie franchise (and the release later this year of the 23rd Bond film, Skyfall), the exhibition “Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style” opened at London’s Barbican Centre on July 6. On view through September 5, the show looks at the various gadgets that the suave spy has used onscreen–and the backstories behind their conception. Fascinatingly, many of the designs have inspired real-world products, making James Bond the ultimate early adopter of new technologies. Or at least a glamorous (if fictitious) R&D superstar.
“People forget that when they see Bond films, especially the older ones, that most of those gadgets onscreen were built to actually work,” Bronwyn Cosgrave, guest curator of the exhibition at the Barbican, told me on the phone.
“Designers created sketches, then they went to the special effects department, which had to build them. They were not fake things that only existed onscreen. The gadgets were pretty extraordinary objects.”
She pointed out that often the fantastical Bond tech inspired real-world companies to market similar products, usually due to consumer demand. Cosgrave learned of this phenomenon after she and her co-curator Lindy Hemming had unprecedented access to the archives of EON Productions, the official creator of the Bond films.
“The first James Bond gadget, the Aston Martin DB5 with an ejector seat, is a great example,” Cosgrave said. “Aston Martin was actually reluctant to loan the cars for Goldfinger. But when the car appeared onscreen, it became the most coveted auto in the world. Paul McCartney ordered one.” Although it may not have had an ejector seat in the commercial version, the auto benefited from high-profile product placement that helped its sales–and, in turn, generated profits that could lead to more product development.
A better example of a Bond item actually influencing product design is the Glastron fiberglass boat featured in the 1979 film Moonraker, Cosgrave said. The boat maker so loved the sleek, sexy design of the Bond boat onscreen that it released a consumer version a year later.
“The Sony Ericsson flip phone in the 1997 Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies featured a design that was conceived by the movie’s production team,” Cosgrave told me. “Later, Sony later launched it. Now, the story seems crazy, but the design evolution for mobile phones was not as hasty as it is today.”
Beyond these specific objects, Bond films have had a notable influence on product design, Cosgrave pointed out, because they foreshadowed two big trends that are relevant today: gadgets that are also luxury items, and everyday products that can also multitask. She points to such concepts as a stylish leather-bound diary that could also fire darts, which appeared in an early Bond movie. It can be seen as a precursor to, say, an Hermes or Gucci iPad case that encloses a powerful tablet computer, a tool to help the owner accomplish numerous feats.
The show at the Barbican also features fictional tech used by the secret service and Bond villains, as well as the history of special effects, graphic design, and props related to the Bond movies. The exhibition will tour internationally after its run in London. Reviews have been favorable so far. “The exhibition’s narrative arc is formulated much like a Bond film: visitors pass through M’s office, where Britain’s top spy received his mission orders, to Q Branch, where he picked up his latest gadgets,” as CNN.com’s Nick Thompson described the successful exhibition design. It’s a show that, perhaps surprisingly and thrillingly, illustrates there’s a little bit of Bond in us all. Or at least in our gizmos and gear.
Image: Sean Connery and Aston Martin, copyright Danjaq, LLC and United Artists Corporation, all rights reserved.