Where does our personal taste come from? I reflect on this occasionally, especially when I see new buildings going up in my area and think: really, you think that’s beautiful? But who am I say what’s beautiful and what’s not? Much of our personal taste is learned, nurtured by our upbringing. It can be a tribal thing – my family likes this, my family doesn’t like that – although it can be the reverse of that, the dislike of what we grew up giving us a taste for what we really like.
We’re products of our environment, too. I always loved huge modern buildings, for instance, because I grew up in a Welsh market town full of wonky old buildings and the tallest thing was the Town Hall clock tower. Skyscrapers of glass, concrete or steel would make me gasp with delight. Surely life was meant to be full of awesome buildings. But other people might think the opposite, hating huge buildings for precisely that reason, that they make a statement.
Whatever it is, I had quite a jolt the other evening as I started to watch a film that I hadn’t seen for decades. It was suddenly abundantly clear to me that there was one person who had really influenced my personal taste: James Bond. Then again, I’ve long had a sneaking suspicion, especially as I’ve been mentioning him rather often in my design pieces on radio. I can’t seem to help it.
The film I watched was ‘You Only Live Twice’. That particular film had caused me a lot of trouble when it came out in 1967. On my way to school that year I would encounter a poster advertising it and I would usually stop and look at it, totally perplexed. For starters, what, oh what did ‘you only live twice’ mean? If that wasn’t confusing enough, what about that ‘only’? Only? Wasn’t living twice enough? There’s no telling what would have happened if it had been called ‘You Only Live Thrice’. (Actually, it comes from a poem that says you only live twice: once when you are born, once when you face death.)
The other issue was the car. At seven years old, I was mad about cars and would happily while away hours looking at pictures of them. Like everyone at the time, I had the toy version of the Aston Martin DB5 in which Bond roared around in ‘Goldfinger’. It had machine guns under the front bumper, a bullet-proof shield that rose up at the back, and if you pressed a tiny metal button at the side, a little plastic figure was ejected through the sunroof. That all made perfect sense: the white sports car on this poster made none. It turned out to be a Toyota 2000GT and that made even less sense. This was the point, in Britain at least, when Japanese cars were the laughing stock of the car world, crappy little things no one actually wanted. But this white sports car was almost as beautiful as an E-Type Jaguar. Who knew the Japanese could do that?
In the film the car speeds through the streets of Tokyo, passing the magnificent gymnasium that Kenzo Tange had designed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Its glorious swoopy roof is as elegant today as it was cutting-edge then. For a kid, the fact that buildings like that existed at all was beyond brilliant.
And then there’s the headquarters of the Japanese baddies. It’s an imposing concrete building with a kind of circular spaceship on top. That bowled me over, too. It’s actually the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, set within an amazing Japanese garden, and, even better, it still exists.
There are endless details in the film that still punch me between the eyes – the traditional Japanese tatami rooms with sliding paper screens (all the better to fall through in a fight), the gorgeous mid-century interiors with cedar wood ceilings and concrete pillars, and the casual placing of design classics like Barcelona chairs and modular sofas on shaggy rugs. Those interiors still look magnificent. I think, in some ways, I still aspire to them.
The plotline gets sillier and sillier (and offensive, too, not just in the overt sexism but also when Bond is given a make-over to look like a Japanese fisherman, complete with silicone eyelids and a wig of black hair, although he ends up looking less Japanese and more like Sean Connery’s dodgy twin). Design-wise, though, it keeps plonking down things that mesmerized me as a boy. How sophisticated was a Hilton hotel! How incredible were televisions in shiny copper spheres! How amazing was a twin-rotor helicopter! How glamorous were women in sequins! And all the while, there was the sumptuous music of John Barry that would help trigger my life-long love for film music (and cause me nearly to hyperventilate many years later when I discovered a friend at work was in fact his daughter).
Maybe it’s childish to be so taken by the glitter and fakery of films but hasn’t each of us been influenced by the films we loved as children? I may rue the fact that the dull grey Hilton hotels that today sit alongside motorways in Britain have none of the sophistication the name once evoked, and that few cars excite me in the way they once did, but my taste, I know, has been nudged by those visions on the big screen. The later Bond films lost me, exulting as they did in the seventies vibe which, even at the time, I found flabby and tasteless (and brown). But when the sharper edges of high-tech and a new simplicity began to rise at the end of the 1970s, I was there again, tongue out, lapping it all up.
I’m still a sucker for an imposing building, especially if it’s made of concrete. Even better if it’s in a spectacular location, commanding a mountain top, say. Then I will always think of Bond villains in slick interiors given a flourish of naffness (usually with expensive antiques that always looks wrong). There will be cocktails and explosions before bedtime.
Watching the film the other evening was more than just dipping into my past, it was like seeing my dreams manifest before my eyes. Older and wiser I might be now but I remain that kid at heart, certainly shaken and most definitely stirred.
What film has influenced your taste?