Stanley Kubrick at the Design Museum

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition comes to the UK for the first time on the 20th anniversary of the American filmmaker’s death, and London's Design Museum is the perfect venue

Words: Sophie Tolhurst
All Images: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The design museum is a fitting host for this expansive exhibition on Stanley Kubrick; its raison d’etre is the presentation of key design objects, contextualising them and explaining the impact they have had on the world. Kubrick’s films are worlds of their own, with their own histories of design we can read. Though fictional, historical or an imagined future, his films were designed into existence – whether plotting the background and movements of characters, or designing and realising objects and settings in meticulous detail. The height of his world-building can be seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where his work in conjunction with Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi story envisaged new ways of moving, communicating, eating and clothing. A plaque in the exhibition quotes lead production designer Tony Masters: ‘We designed 2001 as a period. We designed a way to live, right down to the last knife and fork.’ In this exhibition, the props, costumes, sets, scripts and filmmaking tools on display show the workings behind the magic.

The exhibition positions the director at the centre of the worlds he createdThe exhibition positions the director at the centre of the worlds he created

The exhibition documents how Kubrick’s perfectionism led to new film techniques and tools. For example, in order to evoke the 18th century period of Barry Lyndon, he wanted the film to be shot using only candlelight and natural light. The solution? He commissioned three-wick candles that would burn more brightly, and shot the film with a lens designed by NASA to photograph the dark side of the moon (both the lens and the candles are on show here).

Kubrick (left) and actor George C. Scott play chess in the war room during a break in the filming of Dr. StrangeloveKubrick (left) and actor George C. Scott play chess in the war room during a break in the filming of Dr. Strangelove. Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

Kubrick’s crafting of worlds also showcased his passion for design and an understanding that it can transcend eras, as he carefully selected contemporary designs, repurposing or adapting them. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, for instance, he created a futuristic vision using existing objects that include Danish architect Arne Jacobsen’s cutlery, and furniture by Eero Saarinen, George Nelson and Olivier Mourgue. Kubrick would also look to the future, using new products and innovations he found at the New York World’s Fair of 1964, which were not yet fully realised but could be put into action in his films. Extraordinary prescience presented his Sixties’ audiences with disembodied AI, video calling akin to Facetime, and the astronauts’ IBM tablets that predate the iPad by 40 years. All of this makes Kubrick a fitting subject for the Design Museum, and the items on display perfect for its audience.

The exhibition positions Kubrick at the centre of the worlds he created, and shows that he certainly put the work in: in his early films he learned to cover all roles – writing, directing, operating the camera and editing – to save costs, but that also meant he had an excellent understanding of all that is involved in filmmaking. His methods were intense and involved – when shooting Spartacus he gave the hundreds of extras in a battle scene numbers so that he could direct them all individually – but the exhibition also reveals the other individuals who made the films what they were. Kubrick pursued, and then later was pursued by, the brightest and best.

Kubrick with the actor Jack Nicholson on the set of The ShiningKubrick with the actor Jack Nicholson on the set of The Shining. Credit: Sony/Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.

As well as working with brilliant actors, he employed legendary designers, including Saul Bass, Hardy Amies, Eliot Noyes and Ken Adam. The latter was responsible for the war room in Dr Strangelove, so perfectly conceived that the US president Ronald Reagan was disappointed not to find its real counterpart in the Pentagon. Other design highlights come from 2001: A Space Odyssey, such as the special effects that finally won Kubrick an Oscar, notably the ‘star gate’ sequence, shot using the slit-scan photography adapted by a young Douglas Trumbull (who would later create special effects for Blade Runner); the centrifuge set by British engineers Vickers-Armstrong, which was based on a 1950s space station concept, cost $750,000 and took six months to make; and Harry Lange’s space vehicles, stations and spacesuits, which were informed by his work for NASA at the time.

But Kubrick did not make life easy: he frequently castigated the experts he called in, never satisfied with their work, while a fear of flying was behind the decision to film Full Metal Jacket, Eyes Wide Shut and Dr Strangelove in the UK. This meant real feats of set design, as extraordinary efforts were made to transform London into far away worlds. To create the war-ravaged Vietnamese city of Huê in Full Metal Jacket he employed architecture-trained RCA graduate Anton Furst to transform a derelict 1930s gasworks in Beckton, east London, a process that involved the strategic demolition of a huge number of buildings, and flying in 100,000 plastic plants from Hong Kong and 200 living palm trees from Spain.

Kubrick’s controversial movie, A Clockwork OrangeKubrick’s controversial movie, A Clockwork Orange

The Stanley Kubrick Archive was donated by Kubrick’s family to the University of the Arts London Archives and Special Collections Centre in 2007, having previously been stored in the director’s Hertfordshire home, Childwickbury Manor, where he lived until his death in 1999. I’d heard how expansive the archive was, measuring 853 linear metres, but did not yet know how Kubrick’s obsessive nature extended to requiring custom boxes for the archiving – ‘Lid to be not too tight, not too loose, just perfect’, are the instructions to stationary supplier G.Ryder – or the nature of some of the items: as impressive as his films are, the extent of his obsession seems excessive on seeing the exhibition; for his unrealised Napoleon biopic he collected 276 volumes on the military leader and made a card catalogue for every day of his life.

It is from this archive that the exhibition, initially conceived of by the Deutsches Filmmuseum, is built. It covers all the elements that have gone into the making of Kubrick’s films – the director, the choice of subject matter, the collaborators, the research and development, the script writing, the location scouting and casting, and the set and costume design – and uses all the right props and cues to present Kubrick as a genius. The exhibition fetishises this story: precocious talent at a young age combined with a gifted camera; professional success despite poor school performance, with a timely photo earning the young Kubrick a job at Look magazine; the confidence of his youth that leads him to believe that he could make movies ‘at least as good’ as the bad ones he’d watched. It then follows his obsessive manner of working, his high standards and the eccentricities. The start of the exhibition lets fans pore over his director’s chair, his personal chess set, and later on, the cutting table where he edited his films.

Rightly celebrating Kubrick’s spectacular achievements, and documenting the force of his character that got him there, the feeling the exhibition engenders in its visitors is one of admiration and inspiration. It does, however, risk glorifying obsessiveness and fanaticism whatever the cost. There is more to these archives than the films that Kubrick made, and behind the mythology you glimpse less glorious moments – one example being the very real trauma that he put Shelley Duvall through in order to provoke her impressive performance as Wendy Torrance in The Shining.

The ‘Born to kill’ helmet from Full Metal Jacket, worn here by Matthew Modine in the film, can be seen at the exhibitionThe ‘Born to kill’ helmet from Full Metal Jacket, worn here by Matthew Modine in the film, can be seen at the exhibition

The Design Museum has the expertise and remit to contextualise further and discuss Kubrick’s choices. The utopian vision of Thamesmead in London served as his droogs’ violent playground in A Clockwork Orange, and it is only now that another attempt is being made at realising this 1960s development’s original intentions. There’s a risk of a certain nostalgia for a proposed costume for the waitresses in the film and its story of 20th century sexism – ‘functional when arriving, decorative when departing’– as well as for the extravagance of the off-white clad teen droogs: the Victoriana entwined with violence, false eyelashes, codpieces; the fantasies of self-enhancement that seem to fittingly see the main character Alex use an oversized penis sculpture for a more violent act than could be done by a regular penis. When we see the penis sculpture in the exhibition, do we know or remember the murder scene that utilised it?

Kubrick’s worlds are painstakingly realised, but it is not simply a matter of replicating life. He is quoted here describing a film director as ‘a kind of idea and taste machine’. This raises interesting questions about the notion of taste and the choices made in the production of his films. Elements are reframed and changed. For example, with The Shining, the novel’s author Stephen King disliked the way Wendy Torrance was depicted, with less power and depth in the film. For many, that is the only version of Wendy Torrance there is.

The London iteration of the exhibition was designed by Pentagram, a well-respected design agency and taste machine in its own right. Its work builds on previous versions of the show, with new elements including the entrance film, displayed on multiple screens to highlight Kubrick’s signature one-shot perspective. From here, visitors are funnelled through to peek ‘backstage’ at the complex workings that went into the films, and on the way you are surprised to discover that the house of Lady Lyndon in Barry Lyndon was actually a collage of 15 differently stately homes. You then travel through various worlds he built, admiring his chameleon-like ability to so fully understand each of his universes. You are excited to be invited into them, to recognise the ‘Born to kill’ helmet from Full Metal Jacket, the scale model of the maze in The Shining, and the grand finale of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Hilton Hotel of the PanAm spacecraft, finding yourself impressed by Kubrick’s eye for the importance of branding at the start of the 21st century.

The exhibition, which runs until 17 September, is enthralling, full to the brim and well worth a visit. There is, however, a feeling that, via the lens of design, the curators could dig deeper; the linguistic origins of the word include a sense of motive: to designate, do or plan (something) with a specific purpose in mind. Kubrick spoke of his editing process as whittling his films to their essential elements, commenting: ‘I am never concerned with how much difficulty there was to shoot something, how much it cost, and so forth.’ This does work for a convincing and engaging story, as does the editing of a vast archive down to a singular message. But for all the depth – the what, where, how and why Kubrick studied to create his films, a process shown wonderfully here – the corresponding context for the work is perhaps lacking at times.

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