How an obsession with design facilitated Stanley Kubrick’s genius

The Design Museum’s latest show offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the man behind cinematic masterpieces such as A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as his notorious attention to detail

Obsession has long been considered one of the hallmarks of a creative genius. Michelangelo would apparently lock himself away for days at a time to create his fresco and sculpture masterpieces, while Marie Curie’s Nobel Prize winning research into the theory of radioactivity was the thing that ultimately led to her demise – she died aged 66 from aplastic anemia caused by exposure to radiation.

For Stanley Kubrick, now celebrated as one of the most famous filmmakers in history, his obsession took the form of world building. The late director, whose works include The Shining, A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey, was famously involved in every aspect of bringing his films to life from start to finish, whether it was researching hundreds of locations to be recreated in the studio, or going through endless design iterations to get to the final version of a film poster.

Model of the maze from The Shining © Ed Reeve

A new exhibition at the Design Museum is exploring the director’s obsession with the design detail of making film. Marking the 20th anniversary of Kubrick’s death, it traces the origins of his love of film when he was gifted a Graflex camera at the age of 13 and ended up working as a photographer for New York bi-weekly magazine Look, all the way through to the release of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, in 1999.

The show features over 700 archival objects, films and interviews, ranging from a scale exhibition model of the maze that provides the chilling backdrop to much of the action in Kubrick’s 1980 horror film The Shining, to initial sketches and a model version of the centrifuge from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the final version of which took the manufacturer Vickers-Armstrong six months to build and cost a whopping £580,000.

Centrifuge model from 2001: A Space Odyssey © Ed Reeve

Designed by Pentagram Partner Marina Willer and her team, the exhibition offers visitors a dramatic introduction to world of Kubrick, with a replica patterned carpet from The Shining and a ‘one-point perspective’ corridor that mirrors Kubrick’s famous camera technique forming the main entrance of the show. The rest of the exhibition features a series of colourful rooms, each of which is themed around a different film from his back catalogue.

Despite the sheer variety of genres that Kubrick delved into during his working life – covering everything from sci-fi films to period dramas – the thing that crops up consistently throughout the show is the clear commitment he made to his so-called obsession. The lengths that he would go to in the name of research in particular is astonishing – it often took him years to finally find a level of detail and authenticity that he was satisfied with.

One-point perspective corridor at the entrance to the exhibition © Ed Reeve

When it came to researching the ‘the greatest movie never made’ (Kubrick’s unrealised project based on the life of Napoleon) he enlisted the help of over 20 assistants who travelled around the world to help him build up an encyclopeadia-worthy record of books and file cards featuring minute details of the leader’s everyday life – all during a time when the concept of Google didn’t even exist yet.

Kubrick’s fondness for detail was carried through to researching film locations as well. Thanks in part to a longstanding fear of flying, all of his films were made in the UK despite being set everywhere from the battlefields of Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket to the lunar landscapes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And if Kubrick wasn’t able to visit these locations himself, then they most certainly had to come to him.

One of Alex’s (Malcolm McDowell) costumes from A Clockwork Orange © Ed Reeve

The show includes a small selection of the thousands of location photographs taken by his assistants over the years that helped him to build up a vision of his worlds, which he then meticulously recreated in a studio setting. Eyes Wide Shut, for instance, was set in Manhattan but filmed in Buckinghamshire-based Pinewood Studios. In order to bring the spirit of New York to life, Kubrick insisted on compiling thousands of photos of apartments, coffee shops, staircases, gates and even individual doors before he would even think about turning on a camera.

Kubrick’s love of design detail is also evident from the real-life creatives he drew inspiration from when bringing many of his films to life. Much of the aesthetic of A Clockwork Orange was actually based on the sculptures of British artist Allen Jones. In the end, the creepy, all-white mannequin props from the Milk Bar scene had to be recreated by the film’s production design team, after they couldn’t agree on a fee to use Jones’ original works in the film. Documentary photographer Don McCullin’s haunting images of the impact of the Vietnam War on both soldiers and civilians also formed the starting point for the atmosphere that Kubrick looked to evoke for the viewer in Full Metal Jacket.

Matthew Modine and Stanley Kubrick on the set of Full Metal Jacket © Warner Bros Entertainment Inc

He also formed longstanding working relationships with some of the biggest designers of the 20th century, such as Sir Kenneth Adam, who worked on the production design of the first six James Bond films, and designed the circular green baize table seen in the war room in Dr Strangelove, and fashion designer Sir Edwin Hardy Amies, who created the futuristic uniforms for the Pan American and Aeroflot airline crews in 2001: A Space Odyssey. American graphic designer Saul Bass also endured Kubrick’s infamous perfectionism while working on a number of his films; his creations for The Shining poster seen in the show went through at least 300 versions before the director was finally happy.

Despite clearly not being the easiest to work with, the show demonstrates that it was Kubrick’s meticulousness which resulted in his all-embracing vision as a filmmaker, and is why his films remain so loved by both the design community and the wider public today. As the show’s Special Advisor and long-time friend of the filmmaker, Alan Yentob, says: “Stanley had immense curiosity. Every film was an immersive experience, every film was a new experience. Not only was he a great storyteller, he really set up a world – and then you were allowed to enter it.”

The Conference table in the War Room in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb © Sony/ Columbia Pictures Industries Inc

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition is on display at the Design Museum from April 26 – September 15 2019;