Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail made him murder to work with – and it is on full display in the Design Museum’s exhibition. Make sure you spare a few hours to get the full effect, says Jo Lawson-Tancred
Just a few steps into Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition there is a shelf stacked with 276 books labelled as only ‘part’ of Kubrick’s personal Napoleon library. While researching the emperor, he produced 25,000 index cards that detailed every day of his life – encyclopaedic knowledge that puts Google to shame – and all for a film that was never filmed. It is presented as an example of the director’s obsessive attention to detail, along with the exact Steenbeck editing table where he spent countless hours ruthlessly cutting down Full Metal Jacket (1987), and a series of Saul Bass designs of the poster for The Shining (1980), each annotated with criticisms from Kubrick.
Now at the Design Museum, the show has travelled the world since it opened in Frankfurt in 2004. Kubrick lived in the UK from 1961 until his death in 1999, and much of its trove originally came from the archives of the University of the Arts London. New features for this location include an entrance carpeted in the style of The Shining’s Overlook Hotel and a walk-through tunnel of film clips that show his characteristic use of one-point perspective. Both remind us of how elaborately he constructed not just settings but worlds, ones that could conceivably extend indefinitely beyond his lens. Tony Masters, production designer for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the Space Station from which is partially recreated at the exhibition – said of the film, ‘We designed a way to live’.
The first room is focused on Kubrick’s process and houses an impressive, if occasionally bland, array of clapperboards, posters and original props, some so legendary now that they command a sort of awed reverence. Don’t rush past – there are insights to be gleaned along the margins (in some cases literally, with several of the documents on display bearing hastily scrawled impressions).
The rest is organised into a string of mini-exhibitions, one dedicated to each film. It would have been chaotic to arrange it any other way: each project was not only a highly singular vision but of its own genre – satire, horror, period, war, science fiction – so requires the museum to strike a polyphony of disparate tones.
Kubrick produced most of his films in London, partly due to his preference for the consistency of sealed-off studio spaces. The exhibition generously documents how he also took advantage of London’s architectural range to simulate distant locales. Hatton Garden became a dreamlike Manhattan in Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and the derelict Beckton Gasworks became the city of Hue, Vietnam, for Full Metal Jacket. The latter transformation is unveiled in stages, with hand-drawn additions – palm trees, shop fronts and faintly eroded mouldings across the frieze – transforming location photos of the plant into a believably South-east Asian setting. The effect also relied on selective demolition, and a letter from Kubrick implores North Thames Gas not to clear rubble from the site.
Another curatorial flourish is the pairing of a 1960s promo video for Thamesmead with stills from A Clockwork Orange (1971), a film that provoked such outrage over its portrayal of gangs and casual violence that it hastened Britain’s growing disenchantment with brutalism. Kubrick’s decision to use Thamesmead and Brunel University, west London to frame the film’s authoritative dystopia contrasts with his use of then cutting-edge design to invent a slick near future. Among the examples here are Ettore Sottsass and Perry King’s Valentine Typewriter, Herman Makkink’s Rocking Sculpture and reproductions of the notorious Allen Jones-inspired furniture.
Due credit is given in the exhibition to Kubrick’s collaborators, who were inevitably insinuated in intense conflicts from the day they agreed to work with the perfectionist director. Half a room is dedicated to Ken Adam’s set designs for Dr Strangelove (1964), including a scale model of the lauded War Room. These sections reveal alternate outcomes; IBM design director Eliot Noyes’ rejected suggestion for a much larger HAL that could be inhabited by actors is one example. At some point during costume designer Milena Canonero’s work on A Clockwork Orange’s droog uniform, the actor Malcolm McDowell was photographed in a series of hats. A few are unrecognisable, the rims of others are slightly turned up, creeping closer to the sinister stylisation of the bowler that was eventually used. The silhouette is so known to us now that it is tempting to see it as a predestined decision. That is the case with many of the auteur’s greatest accomplishments.
Kubrick once remarked that ‘a director is a kind of idea and taste machine … and it’s [their] job to make the right decisions as frequently as possible’. Few would doubt his ability to make the correct calls, but the exhibition plants us in the more volatile, speculative space where his works are as much a series of blueprints as those of any other product designer. Surveying them, the visitor perceives a director for whom even an actor’s manner or a camera lens were just factors within a grander choreography of design considerations, each revised and fine-tuned until they fell into final harmony.
Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition runs at the Design Museum, London, until 15 September 2019