The secret service of style

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.

Yoyogi gymnaisum by Kenzo Tange (Flickr Naoya Fujii)

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.

New Otani (Flickr: Guilhem Vellut)

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?





Categories: Architecture, Design, memoir, Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. I so loved reading this Colin. So influenced by early Bond films was I that I married a man who looks like a young Sean Connery and would love an Aston Martin but at 6’5” can’t fit behind steering wheel.

  2. I see what you did with the title! Nice one. And nice post too. And right off the bat I would like to say how wonderful that gymnasium looks!
    It amazes me and I think has always amazed me about us, the things one notices and the things one doesn’t. Though I have come to the conclusion that I spent most of my early life in some other mental universe, probably just staring at colours, as I don’t remember much of my early life.
    You and cars! That was incredibly bad research on the part of the poster designers, wasn’t it? Again I have never taken much notice of cars, that is until they started marketing them at women and made them look less aggressive. I will always remember the VW Golf advert in 1987 with the obvious reference to Lady Di.
    In terms of films influencing my taste. I don’t know really. I know that I feel very relieved when a film reflects my taste, such as Four Weddings.
    Though last year I did go and see The Personal History of David Copperfield which was such a fabulous feast for the eyes. Quite extraordinary. And nearly every scene had turquoise in it – I was in heaven!
    Nothing changes really does it 🙂

    • Can’t write about Bond films without a pun. Isn’t it a glorious building! Cars and buildings were basically my youth, probably because we lived in a dull one and my father drove a dud. I don’t remember that Golf ad although I do remember she drove a Metro when she was being hounded before the marriage and I thought that was a bit naff… Yes, seeing your taste represented on-screen works as another character, really. I wonder if you were struck by colourful rooms as a child and their effect on you, not just in film but in real life? Interesting to go back to childhood and fossick about…

      • If only I could remember … 😉
        I’m amazed you don’t remember the ad – a Lady Di figure played by Paula Hamilton coming out of a London mews house obviously breaking up with someone, passionately divesting herself of her engagement ring, fur and jewels and then getting into the VW Golf. Just goes to show what hits us and what doesn’t.
        Wonderful post!

  3. I can see why a young boy would have been blown away by Bond films! I remember as a kid loving the both old Victorian and modern interiors of films set in England and New York, although I can’t think of any particular titles. Living in a non-descript split-level in the suburbs, I longed for urban places that were more authentically themselves. Later I drooled over my friends’ renovated homes with exposed brick, stripped floors and recessed lighting. Growing up in Canada, where such things abounded in the 60s, I do detest wood paneling. And having worked with many art directors with a good eye for design, I’d say I can live with anything as long as it’s not dressed up pretending to be something it’s not. Thanks for the reference on ‘You only live twice’. Very interesting!

    • I think it was often the thoughtful, considered design of interiors that grabbed me, too, because most of what one saw (and lived with!) was so utterly random. I’m totally with you on ‘honest’ materials – fakery just never cuts it…. Good luck with your search for an honest home!

  4. Oz films fascinate me. The Dress Maker ,Muriel’s Wedding, Pricilla. Live looking @ buildings. Yet to explore exhibition Building Melbourne. I live the old fashioned skillioned roofed buildings now called “coastal”. Like the oppulence of colonial buildings. Listen to all your Blue Print for Living programs. Live them.

    • Me, too, Lesley. Although Porpoise Spit meant nothing to me until I actually came to live here. Films are such great documents of our past, too, showing our cities, suburbs and countryside as they once were. I think this might be the year when I explore more of our homegrown buildings than I usually do. And thanks for your comments re Blueprint!

  5. I often used to watch peplums aka sword-and-sandal films of the 60s on rainy weekend afternoons and they have definitely influenced me.
    Thankfully not my taste in interior design (no marble columns, Roman couch or X-shaped chairs here!) but definitely a life-long interest in Ancient Greece & Rome, the Mediterranean sea/landscapes and even a fondness for the suntanned dark-haired male (but strangely enough, not Steve Reeves-sized beefcakes!). By the Gods!

    • Such a good word, peplum. Very glad to hear about the interior design although there are many in Sydney who obviously took those interiors to heart and added a Corinthian column here and there. As you say, those peplums stimulated interests in many, many directions… 😉

  6. Hi Colin, late to the party, but I felt I had to comment, specially as You Only Live Twice is my favourite Bond movie (spaceships that swallow other spaceships? Secret bases in volcanoes? How could it miss for a seven year old?). Just really adding some information about that Toyota GT2000 – the illustration you show wasn’t from a poster, but was originally the box artwork of the Airfix model kit that was released in conjunction with the film. And the real life cars were never issued as convertibles – they had to cut the roof off one for the film, otherwise Sean Connery wouldn’t have fitted inside it.

    But everything else you said is true; buildings today, with a few exceptions, aren’t the futuristic edifices we were thinking we’d get way back when – as for interiors, it’s all that Ken Adams’s fault for setting such high expectations.

    • Hi B – And thanks for the info about the Toyota. I wondered where that image had come from. I trawled the internet for ages to try and find the poster I saw as a kid – all I remember is that it showed either the back or the front of the car with Bond and a girl in a clinch – but I couldn’t find it anywhere. It was a great looking car, even if totally inspired by the Jag – an omen for the future… It’s interesting that the jaw-dropping buildings of our youth usually used actual buildings, whereas today’s CGI movies have totally taken that away. No one’s going to track down buildings from Star Wars, etc , just the landscapes that stood in for other planets, other realms. Seems a shame… As for Ken Adams, well, I think I may have to devote an entire piece on him, or maybe that should be a grateful homage.

  7. How did I miss this when it was first posted? What an entertaining read! I lived for a short while in Tokyo’s Yoyogi district and would regularly walk through Yoyogi park to the gym for a swim. I remember the pool room had a high and sweeping ceiling which was impressive. Now I’m wishing I had paid more attention.
    I’m going to look for ‘You Only Live Twice’ and watch it again. Thanks for the prod. I know I’ll enjoy it.

    • Oh, so often I realise I used to walk past places in the past that I’d love to look at now – just in a different phase of life, I suppose. Living in Japan would be so interesting… Hope you get to see the film, it really is very glam! x

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