JUXTAPOZ Issue #31, March 2001

by George Petros

Syd Mead, combining his skills as an industrial designer, art director and illustrator, predicts how the world of tomorrow will look. He renders the dream cars, skyscrapers, and pristine people of a best-case-scenario future for clients like General Motors, Ford, U.S. Steel and Disney. Also a designer and consultant for the motion picture industry, he gained fame for the somewhat dystopian future of Blade Runner and for the chilly sub-atomic landscapes of Tron.

His work, although lofty, celebrates practicality. A master draftsman overlaying hard-nosed reality with the look and feel of Sci-fi, he extrapolates current trends and technologies, arriving at a point where art meets corporate interests. He’s a master of light, splashing it over the metal and plastic of beautifully realized machines. The work focuses on transportation, with emphasis on the automobile. Mead’s a salesman for big ideas, and for what is possible.

“My father was a Baptist Minister, and why he thought I’d be interested in Science Fiction, I have no idea,” Mead says of his earliest aesthetic experiences. “I remember him reading Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon to me when. That certainly sowed the seeds of me being fascinated. I was drawing rocket ships and high-speed teardrop vehicles. Other kids were drawing stupid wagons and airplanes.”

In Mead’s crystal ball, technology is nature’s highest achievement. Humans gracefully rule a clean, well-managed planet of perfect nuts and bolts, flawless stainless steel, and endless expansion of organization. He’s proud of our species — some members, that is. “The future was hijacked by feel-good social mavens who took over social prerogatives, promising ever-more-marvelous results paid for with purloined taxes funding ever-more-expensive government-mandated programs. Most of these bureaucratic inventions have not only failed, but have actually accelerated the negative trends they were originally intended to slow or reverse!”

Mead was born in 1933 in St. Paul, Minnesota. When he was four his family moved to South Dakota. At an early age he started drawing. “I was self-taught up to the time I entered the Art Center School in Pasadena, California in 1956. I could draw very well, and had already earned my first professional salary as an inker, character developer, and background artist for a film company prior to my 1953-to-’56 Army Corps of Engineer stint.

“In 1956 I flew to Los Angeles, interviewed at Art Center School and was accepted for the fall semester on the spot. At the School I was exposed to the integral link between design, material parameters and engineering for production.

“I graduated in 1959 with Great Distinction. I had already been hired by the Ford Motor Company's Advanced Styling Studio a semester before graduation. The annual salary for a professional out of one of the best schools in the country was about four thousand dollars a year. That was also the price of a new Cadillac. You can generally gauge a professional salary level by what it costs to buy a reasonable luxury car.”

Frantic activity under nerve-racking deadlines animated the Sixties design studios where Mead cut his chops as a craftsman. He also learned about the often pragmatic nature of art: “I worked at the Advanced Styling Studio for about twenty-six months. I found out very, very quickly that this was not where I was going to spend the rest of my professional career. The thinness of the purpose is apparent right from the start. If the company decided to stop making cars and start making washing machines next week, the process would not change at all — you just start doing sketches of washing machines.”

Designing cars for mass production is complicated. The guys in the studio sweat over everything: “We’d do full-size side-view tape drawings on big boards with grid marks — a profile of the car in varying widths of tape. You draw with tape. And then for the very important part — the highlight lines, which means that if the car is turning or there’s a reflection on its shiny fender, that reflection will do things on those lines, and that’s how you see the shape. So, we’d do different highlight lines in red or blue or green tape, calculated from section drawings, and that would show you if you had any funny little bumps in the smoothness of the design.”

Today Mead’s a walking encyclopedia of forgotten-but-fascinating information: “In the car studios you had full-size ‘bucks’ — wood or steel-reinforced frameworks generally in the shape of the car you’re going to design. You put clay over them — now they use foam, because it’s lighter — and you can sculpt the clay. You literally carve the design — very carefully. You had sliding gantries that go over the car form — you can push in little pegs and make tick-marks, and the modelers then shave the clay down to match the designers’ shapes. It’s like a three-dimensional pantagraph. They were on wheels, on a very accurate tracking system, and the platforms on which the bucks stood were mounted on concrete pylons that went down into the ground forty-something feet, and were physically isolated from the building so that vibration would not jiggle them. A very, very expensive system to build. The clay models are beautiful works of art, regardless of whether the design is dumb or not. The physical skill of doing these full-size models is remarkable. Then you’d take a product called Di-Knock — a plastic film which came in colors — and heat it up in a hot-water tub, then slick it over the clay with little spatulas to get all the air bubbles out, and essentially what you ended up with was a clay model with a shiny simulated lacquer finish on it.

“But now in the digital age, a lot of the design stuff is done on the computer screen with visualizing programs, and the test models are actually carved by computer-driven heads out of solid foam — or they’re just represented in theory on a screen. Oddly, the computer rendering environment laboriously attempts to duplicate classic drawing techniques with elaborately coded application and filter algorithms.”

In Detroit Mead was at the center of the automotive universe: “Look at some of the old commercials, and the World’s Fairs, and you get the idea that cars were promoted as the pinnacle of lifestyle accouterments. Indeed, they were, and are. The automobile is the most complicated article made for public purchase. An automobile is a place; it has entertainment, it has air conditioning, it has a myriad little sub-systems to keep the whole thing running, and is nicer inside than most people's homes — more color-coordinated, more precisely fitted together — in short, an automobile is truly a marvelous construct. The message was that your car is you and as your social status advances, we have just the car you need to announce that you are successful. You’ll be whooshing your way across the country in your living-room-on-wheels, possibly under automated control.

“Car art was a huge part of the advertising market for automobiles, supporting entire careers generating the exotic renderings that graced double-page color spreads from the early Twenties, becoming a huge art industry during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Harley Earl, who was head of design at GM for all those decades — he actually started General Motors’ design; it was called ‘Paint and Color’ back then. They used to do pictures of cars — side-view elevations — in oil. Can you imagine that?”

Syd Mead Inc. formed in 1970 to handle ever-increasing design gigs, landing accounts with heavyweight firms like Philips C.I.D.C. (design arm of the Dutch electronics manufacturer) and the studios of famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy (who designed, among many other things, the NASA logo and the Studebaker). That same year Mead turned down Chrysler’s offer to be the “idea man” in their Brazilian studio. In ’75 he moved his operation to Capistrano Beach, California.

In ’76 Yes cover artist Roger Dean published Sentinel, the first of many lavishly illustrated Mead coffee-table books. “That book, in bookstores in London when Ridley Scott was searching for conceptual artists for Blade Runner, secured me the opportunity to create the vehicles, the look of the street sets, and many of the prop fixtures for the movie. For that happenstance of history, I shall be forever beholden.”

In ’78 Mead designed a renegade space probe and its heavenly legions for director John Dykstra’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In 1980 came the embodiment of Mead’s signature style: Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s epic — a metaphor for a bleak-but-hi-tech tomorrow, contrasting the optimistic corporate world-view usually associated with Mead. “But remember, I designed the look of [director Steven Lisberger’s] Tron simultaneously. The most amazing thing that amateurs are consistently confused about is that a designer can create anything that is desired. The result can have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the designer’s personal preferences. I was hired by Ridley Scott to expertly design a dystopian world in which the story interpretation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? took place. That is what I did. It was a professional challenge. It became a cult film. I am happy. Now, let's move on.”

Since then Mead has added visionary expertise to many Hollywood Sci-fi extravaganzas, including director Peter Hyams’ interpretation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010, James Cameron’s Aliens, Richard Edlunds’ Solar Crisis, and Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days. He kept the science of Science Fiction functional, and made the fiction believable. (He also belonged to the matte painters and illustrators’ guild.)

All the while he worked on a myriad of design projects for a who’s-who of big-ticket clients: the sumptuous interior of a private 747 for King Fah'd of the Royal House of Oman, a re-design of the Japanese battleship Yamoto for duty in outer space (for an animation project), a Jules Verne time tour for EuroDisney, and a rocket-ship character for Matt Groening’s animated series Futurama.

Mead’s formidable range of skills sometimes confuses his clients: “Well, commercial art is art. Industrial design is a whole separate thing. Even now, clients don’t understand the split between the two. When I do a design job for a client, and then want to charge them separately for a color illustration, beyond just working sketches, they’re astonished that they should have to pay extra. They don’t realize there’s a whole separate skill set involved in making a photographic illustration.”

As an example of Mead’s maddening schedule, and of his work’s variety, consider these excerpts from his recent itinerary: “Presentation, Detroit — an ‘autovision night’ sponsored by Ford Product Development Center: ‘Ideas and proposals for the future of transport’; Sony, San Diego — design for sequel to premier-brand electronic game for Playstation format; Sunrise, Inc., Tokyo — final clean-up and publicity prior to launch of new series on Japanese national TV; Presentation, The Game Developers Conference, San Jose, CA — presentation about how design and concept affect game development; Presentation, Culver City, CA — presentation to the design staff and administrators at Sony Imageworks studios; Presentation, Glasgow, Scotland — presentation to designer group about how future society affects the practice of concept and account design; Carnigie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh — speaking engagement; Babbelsberg High Tech Center, Potsdam, Germany — speaking engagement; Paramont Parks, Charlotte, NC — proposal for franchise theme-park plaza illustration; Walt Disney Studios, Burbank, CA — pre-production design for Mission To Mars movie …”

By what processes does his vision reach fruition? “I work with Pentel fine-line pens on common letter paper, or on Letraset 19”x27” pads, using mostly gray-scale felt-tip markers. For elaborate illustrations, I use Windsor & Newton gouache applied with an airbrush and animal-hair brushes. The combination of the two gives you the best of each. As for the airbrush, I learned on a Thayer-Chandler. Now, because I use gouache paint, which has gum arabic in it — which will clog up a Paasche or one of these elite, fussy airbrushes right away — I use an Iwata powered by liquid carbon-dioxide gas — the gas is ‘dry’ when it sublimates from liquid to gas, which in turn prevents water spurts that damage the illustration. Iwata is a Japanese all-stainless-steel airbrush — very durable, does not back up. They’re expensive.

“I use my computer for letter writing, graphic design and image processing. For much of my client work, I can sketch, scan and colorize, create really smashing presentation work and hand over copies rather than original artwork. I have currently a Macintosh G3 with 512 Mb of RAM and a 12.5 Gig disk. But the thinking process, the creative impulse, the idea-invention is still done in the recesses of my favorite tool, my brain.”

Mead describes himself as a ‘visual futurist.’ He’s got a penchant for practical application, unlike those futurists in think-tanks and institutes who sit around all day wondering what will be going on hundreds of years hence. Nor is he a Futurist of the early Twentieth-Century school that issued its famous manifesto in praise of speed, metal, and demolition of the past.

His airbrush is like a welding torch remaking the imperfections of today. Through discipline and attention to detail, his icy ideas come alive. His renderings look as if they’re in a showroom, fresh and shiny. Perhaps envisioning such a beautiful place allows Mead to escape from the rat-race of a present peopled by the inefficient: “I do not enjoy popular places where clamoring, moussed wannabes spend their entire waking hours impressing each other. At this stage in my life, I've impressed top movie directors, sultans, kings, heads of industry and my local bartender. I don't have to compete for space anymore. That is a comfort that, I suppose, comes with being very good at what you do for over forty years. I detest unimaginative head waiters, snotty studio production assistants, corporate paralegals and bureaucratic minions, most government staffers who fulfill the lowest-common-denominator category, first-class stewards who assume the mantle of ‘class’ because they are working the front of the plane, and vapid drivers in SUVs chatting on a cell phone as they nonchalantly cut me off in their oblivious progress toward the nearest off-ramp.”

Nor does Art, that sacred institution, escape Mead’s irascible outrage: “Art — a wasteland. The gallery game is an involuted stroking industry that is wholly supported by a universe of people who know little about art other than that they should buy it if someone tells them they should like it. Many, many of the so-called ‘famous artists’ are promoted without any substantiation whatsoever. Gallery openings are events where bad wine and stale cheese provides a perfect compliment to what is hanging on the walls.”

Mead still resides in Capistrano Beach, living the good life and turning out visions of a plausible future. “I enjoy going to my beach house and falling asleep to the sound of the surf a hundred feet below. I enjoy a convivial adult beverage with friends in a sophisticated environment. My favorite distilled spirits are Dewar's scotch, Grey Goose vodka, Drambuie, Gran Marnee and, once in a while, a very nice cognac. I enjoy, most of all, drawing with no constraints.

“I’m getting ready to work on a movie if the lawyers can ever get out of the way. Getting ready to design some really cool stuff — proprietary until about the middle of next year — and trying desperately to figure out what a TV-pilot bunch actually think they want.”

Still a caustic social critic, when asked about missed opportunities of recent decades he replies, “Imagining and actually insisting that equal opportunity must, to be fair, promise — no, guarantee — equal result. A cruel and unattainable goal …

“The government, the media, and the lethal academic intelligentsia have literally created a homeless class. The currently fashionable minority class is their pathetic patient; a patient that is maintained in a constant state of dire threat; a patient that needs ever-more-elaborate care in order to effect an ever-more-costly tax-based cure. This elaborately sustained shibboleth is the stuff of revolution.”

One thing puts Mead’s hefty ego on the back burner: Nature, the timeless palate from which he derives both inspiration and raw materials. “Nature is, after all, the grand inventor, having been around for millions of years, using infinite time as a foil for trial and error. We can't even begin to compete.”

What kind of car do you have, Syd? “Here's a list, in chronological order: 1934 Ford Roadster with a ’41 Mercury V-8 engine; a 1938 Ford two-door sedan, lowered, lacquered and re-upholstered in scarlet vinyl; a ’48 Ford Club Coupe; a 1952 Oldsmobile Rocket; A ’57 Ford; a ’61 Cadillac Coupe de Ville: a ’56 Mercedes-Benz 3OOSL gull-wing coupe — which I still have; a 1963 Cadillac Coupe de Ville; a ’65 Cadillac Coupe de Ville: a ’67 Lincoln four-door convertible; a ’70 Chrysler Imperial; a ’72 Chrysler Imperial; a ’79 Lincoln Towncar; a 1990 Lincoln Mark V Continental; a 1993 Lincoln Towncar.”

And what do you presently drive? “The Mercedes 300SL, a 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, and a 1993 Cadillac Allante. Contemporary car design is so dismal — the only current automobiles I would even consider buying and being seen in would be either the Chrysler 3OOM or the Chrysler LSH or LSX sedan models.”

Final Q: Does Mead see his influence in contemporary art? “I certainly hope not.”