Even for those who have managed to avoid watching the longest running film franchise of all time, starting with Dr. No in 1962, the James Bond style, with its casinos, cars and elaborate villain headquarters is instantly recognisable, holding a very firm place in popular culture. Making an impressive attempt to commemorate the massive wealth of material these films have produced, Designing 007 - Fifty Years of Bond Style at the Barbican is setting out to celebrate the years of design effort that have made James Bond such an iconic figure.
Sprawling through the Barbican rooms, out into the foyer and down into the centre’s basement, this exhibition is huge, and has clearly made full use of the EON production archives, featuring all the hugely memorable costumes, gadgets, automobiles and set design drawings used throughout the years, from a 1964 Aston Martin to Daniel Craig’s blue swimming trunks. And the Barbican has responded, with varied success, by converting their rooms into the most iconic Bond film scenes - with a recreated casino, ice cave and Q headquarters serving as exhibition space for this vast menagerie. The centre has saved its boldest room for the entrance, with a design inspired by the American gold reserve, complete with bars and factory lights all in gold - a life-size model of Goldfinger's famous victim, partially naked, painted gold and passed out from epidermal suffocation, lying on a rotating bed in the centre of the floor, waiting to greet visitors.
But whilst curator Bronwyn Cosgrave and costume designer Lindy Hemming claim that the films have always moved one step ahead of contemporary fashions, these themed rooms seem only to confirm the mostly static, classic imagery of the Bond franchise. James Bond, or 007, is an identifiable style in itself; practically cliché. And the old lines 'shaken, not stirred' and 'license to kill' that have been heard time and again are echoed from multiple projections throughout the Barbican’s casino room, amongst replica dinner suits, revealing gowns and cocktail glasses, in a demonstration of the epitomised 'Bond' style. On display is the Prada dress worn by Olga Kurlylenko in Quantum of Solace in a recreation of a famous Bond desert scene, and Halle Berry's orange bikini from Die Another Day, shown alongside its inspiration, Ursula Andress' white swimsuit from the earlier Thunderball, all reinforcing the sense that, finally, in recent years, the films have become self-referential and an imitation of themselves.
To some extent, with such a wealth of material on display, the impressive design effort and attention to detail behind James Bond is at least made clear. The inclusion of initial sketches and elaborate drawings of many of the memorable Bond film sets offers an interesting view of where these designs began, and some insight into the creative process. The replica Q headquarters also displays a satisfying collection of the notorious Bond gadgets with their initial design drawings. A briefcase full of carefully ‘disguised’ items, including an innocent looking Prick Stick, and the famous golden gun made from regular office stationary speaks to the essential Bond fantasy, of excitement and adventure existing underneath mundane and everyday life. Most entertaining are perhaps the numerous fake British passports and ID cards created for Bonds played by Daniel Craig and Pierce Brosnan and, later, Jaw’s steel teeth, first appearing in The Spy Who Loved Me.
But unless you are an avid Bond fan, this memorabilia is not going to especially excite or interest. It is novel to view the props and designs from such well known films, but it terms of celebrating the design and artistic merit of this franchise, Designing 007 feels more like a museum exhibition, documenting the various Bond adventures through the years. It might be that, dividing the material into themes such as ‘casino outfits’, ‘Bond villains’ and ‘snow stunts’, this exhibition only reinforces the sense that ‘Bond’ style is, if anything, cliché.