RIP Syd Mead: Revisit the Life and & Art of the Designer Behind Blade Runner, Alien & More

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 Futur­istThe 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Blade Run­ner Sketch­book Fea­tures The Orig­i­nal Art of Syd Mead & Rid­ley Scott (1982)

The Art of Mak­ing Blade Run­ner: See the Orig­i­nal Sketch­book, Sto­ry­boards, On-Set Polaroids & More

French Stu­dent Sets Inter­net on Fire with Ani­ma­tion Inspired by Moe­bius, Syd Mead & Hayao Miyaza­ki

“The Long Tomor­row”: Dis­cov­er Mœbius’ Hard-Boiled Detec­tive Com­ic That Inspired Blade Run­ner (1975)

The Giger Bar: Dis­cov­er the 1980s Tokyo Bar Designed by H. R. Giger, the Same Artist Who Cre­at­ed the Night­mar­ish Mon­ster in Rid­ley Scott’s Alien

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.

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  • Carlos Carvalho says:

    Syd Mead also worked for Ray­mond Lowey. He went to Paris and stayed in Ray­mond Loewy’s Com­pag­nie d’Esthetic Indus­triel illus­trat­ing some projects of a large con­tract with Rus­sia.
    This hap­pened on the ear­ly sev­en­ties of last cen­tu­ry. I worked in that office but unfor­tu­nate­ly nev­er met him. He had gone before my arrival.

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