Remembering Syd Mead, the ‘Oscar Wilde of designers’

Remembering Syd Mead, the ‘Oscar Wilde of designers’

The American ‘visual futurist’ behind the imaginary worlds for movies including Blade Runner and Tron as well as conceptual design for Ford, Phillips and Sony passed away aged 86 in December 2019. Here Wallpaper* salutes his life and influence

The number of times Syd Mead’s name is mentioned as an inspiration by designers of all types – but especially professional car designers from Ferrari’s Flavio Manzoni to ex-BMW Group design boss Chris Bangle – is truly remarkable. Indeed, Bangle dubbed him, ‘the Oscar Wilde of designers: when you think you have a new idea, you find he’s drawn it all before and usually decades ago.’ The key to his influence was his ability to take what was known about technology and project it into the future, but not so far that people couldn’t relate to it. Using a highly-detailed and refined, but usually only 2D rendering technique, flying cars, cities floating in the sky and even giant metallic greyhounds all came from his imaginative mind. 

Born on July 18th 1933 in St Paul, Minnesota, Mead was a natural at drawing and encouraged by his art enthusiast, Baptist minister father. ‘By the time I was four I was drawing cars with people and by 11 portraits of my uncle Henry which were actually quite good,’ he recalled in an interview back in 2015. ‘The more accurately I could illustrate my imaginary world the more satisfying it was. That accelerated the development of my technique.’

After gaining subsidised tuition for a professional arts degree from Art Center, Pasadena, California he started at Ford’s Advanced Design studio in 1959 but didn’t last long. ‘My contribution to American car design is the tail-light on the ’63 Falcon Futura,’ he joked. He actually worked on the Gyron show car too but quit in 1961. ‘When you work for a big corporation, you’re part of the idea-manufacturing business, and they may or may not use your idea. You have to accept that.’

‘My film credit on Blade Runner was "visual futurist" because it’s visual and I’m doing future stuff. I made the title up on the phone. I knew it had to be bumper sticker-friendly.’

Headhunted by an ex-Ford designer, he became a commercial designer and illustrator working on lucrative accounts for large American corporations. The marketing books for US Steel in particular featured his futuristic visions of brilliantly-imagined and rendered vehicles which became a sensation at the time and are still sought-after today. He then became a partner at the Mead Hansen agency and eventually got one of his complete designs made for Ford, when it was a client rather than his employer – a rare custom truck based on a ’63 Ford Station wagon – and also redesigned the group’s logos, Ford, Lincoln and Mercury.

In 1970 he launched an industrial design consultancy, Syd Mead Inc, in Detroit and gained varied projects and clients including corporate jets, cassette recorders and electric cars for Philips Electronics, cruise ship interiors for Norwegian Caribbean Lines and architectural renderings for InterContinental Hotels. Moving back to California in 1975 he attracted the attention of the film industry and worked on vehicle, spaceship, city and character designs for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Blade Runner and Tron (both 1982), 2010 (1984), as well as Elysium (2013), Tomorrowland (2015) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).

His designs for Blade Runner are probably his best-known work. Asked why he thought they’ve endured he replied: ‘The most important thing is that Blade Runner never violates its technical premise. We made about 20 full-size vehicles, including three Spinners, the taxi and Sebastian’s truck. As the character Sebastian was a tinkerer, to my mind his truck would be made out of parts scavenged from a local junkyard, so I had to think about what parts would be in a junkyard in 2019?” Mead did get to see almost all of 2019 before losing his battle with lymphoma complications on December 30th. His self-invented job title for that movie sums up his career and self-deprecating persona perfectly: ‘My film credit on Blade Runner was "visual futurist" because it’s visual and I’m doing future stuff. I made the title up on the phone. I knew it had to be bumper sticker-friendly.’ §

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