Has any year ever sounded more futuristic than 2020, the one we all live in as of today? 2019 came close, mostly because it was the year in which Blade Runner took place. Though initially a flop, Ridley Scott's cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? soon became a contender for the most influential vision of the future ever put on screen. This owes not just to the directorial skill of Scott himself, but also of the many collaborators who set their imaginations to the year 2019 — then nearly 40 years in the future — along with him. Among the most important was concept artist Syd Mead, who died this past Monday at the age of 86.
Mead credited as an inspiration for his own Blade Runner work Métal hurlant, the 1970s French comic book that brought attention to the even more deeply influential art of Moebius. But his own career as an illustrator and industrial designer, already far along by that time, had also prepared him thoroughly for the job. That career began in 1959 with Mead's recruitment to the Ford Motor Company's Advanced Styling Studio, where he spent two years thinking up the cars of the future. He then illustrated publications for other corporations before launching his own design firm in 1970, working with European clients including Philips and Intercontinental Hotels, and later nearly every Japanese corporation that mattered, from Sony, Bandai, and NHK to Minolta, Dentsu, and Honda.
That was in the early 1980s, when we all looked upon Japan as a vision of the future. To an extent we still do, not least because of the Japanified future envisioned in Blade Runner — as well as the one envisioned in its recent sequel Blade Runner 2046, also a beneficiary of Mead's contributions. No matter how much Japan fascinated Mead, Japan repaid that fascination tenfold, seeking him out for film and animation projects, putting on shows of his work, and even publishing a digital collection of his art as one of the very first CD-ROMs. (I myself first heard of Mead from Syd Mead's Terraforming, a Japanese-made video game for the Turbografx-CD that made use of his visuals.) This was perhaps an unexpected development in the life of a kid from Minnesota who spent his youth drawing in solitude, even one who grew up absorbing the sci-fi swashbuckling of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
But unlike those kitschy, dated worlds of flying cars, gleaming towers, rocketships, robots, Mead created credible, enduring worlds of flying cars, gleaming towers, rocketships, robots. That must owe in part to an instinct, developed through industrial design work, of rooting the fantastical in the possible. A look back at the full scope of his art — which you can glimpse in the trailer for the documentary Visual Futurist: The Life and Art of Syd Mead at the top of the post as well as in the montage video just above — reveals that Mead really believed in the futures he drew. And by having believed in them, he makes us believe in them. The real 2020 may not bring any of the sky-high buildings, impossibly sleek vehicles, or sublimely vast pieces of infrastructure that Mead could render so convincingly. But however the next year — or the next decade, or indeed the next century — does look, it will owe more than a little to the imagination of Syd Mead.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.