Issue 4 ::

Visionary
Futurist
Syd Mead

A Retrospective

Syd Mead has created many distinct visions of the future over the course of his career, but his strong personality pervades them all. Few have been able to string together superb draftsmanship, plausibility, zany artistry, and engineering prowess to create such comprehensive and enthralling conceptions of what tomorrow will look like. Syd’s iconic designs have transformed movies like Blade Runner and Tron into cult classics, and his unwavering forward movement has inspired several generations of creatives to be ambitious when it comes to dreaming.

DREW - You mentioned in earlier conversations that you’re interested in fashion. I wasn’t aware of that. Would you mind explaining a bit?

SYD - I’ve been imagining and illustrating ‘future’ scenarios from an early age. Every world, story, scenario needs all the stuff that we have in our ‘real’ world. So, being interested in fashion is simply creating character costume as part of whatever world I’m imagining at the time.

DREW - You also talked about how Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Blade Runner are two of your favorite films.

SYD - I mean, it is Ridley Scott’s adroit sense that brought Blade Runner together under daunting circumstances.

DREW - Yeah, I’ve heard Blade Runner was a particularly trying project. Did you enjoy working on it, though?

SYD - Blade Runner was the second film I’d ever worked on (Star Trek The Motion Picture with Robert Wise directing was the first). So, I didn’t really know about working on films. For me, it was another account involving all the same things I’d been doing for the prior twenty two years. I enjoyed solving several problems involving inventing a socio-, economic, architectural design format that fit the script and Ridley’s quite precise visual direction. I enjoyed the process very much. I was not on studio staff as a day-to-day presence. I would show my sketches to Ridley or Lawrence Paul when Ridley was back in London or busy. Then I would drive back to Orange County to my then beach house to get ready for the next ‘show and tell’ date. 

DREW - Yeah, I’ve heard Blade Runner was a particularly trying project. Did you enjoy working on it, though?

SYD - Blade Runner was the second film I’d ever worked on (Star Trek The Motion Picture with Robert Wise directing was the first). So, I didn’t really know about working on films. For me, it was another account involving all the same things I’d been doing for the prior twenty two years. I enjoyed solving several problems involving inventing a socio-, economic, architectural design format that fit the script and Ridley’s quite precise visual direction. I enjoyed the process very much. I was not on studio staff as a day-to-day presence. I would show my sketches to Ridley or Lawrence Paul when Ridley was back in London or busy. Then I would drive back to Orange County to my then beach house to get ready for the next ‘show and tell’ date. 

DREW - Do you feel like anything about the present is representative of what you had envisioned for the future in movies like Blade Runner and Star Trek?

SYD - I’ve been commissioned to depict ‘customized’ futures for corporate promotion, magazine articles, themed entertainment, night clubs, movies and television. In the course of inventing those illustrated futures I’ve visually predicted flexible RGB screens, personal transcript devices, personal communication wands and wearable electronics. I think my automobile designs I created over forty years ago look current.

DREW - Do you feel like the Information Age has changed anything about the fundamentals of design?

SYD - Global instantaneous information exchange and accessibility creates a global awareness market. Of course it influences design. One must be aware of multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-socio/economics to consistently create stuff that appeals across a wide spectrum of acceptance. In effect, a ‘world brand.’

DREW - How does that effect the day-to-day of what you do?

SYD - I’ve always created scenarios in which my designs ‘live’ as used objects. I’ve illustrated arabic palaces, worked with the Philips design staff in Eindhoven, Holland for twelve years on a several times a year consultant engagement, worked with the Raymond Lowely Studio in Paris, worked with the Volvo Design Team in Goteborg, Sweden, worked with Giugiaro’s Italdesign in Torino, Italy, and contributed to a lot of Japanese projects. This exposure on a global scale influences my design ‘style’ a lot. I realize that with a global design market, cultural sensibilities influence response to design and illustrated concepts. 

DREW - Has there ever been an overtly or covertly political element to your work?

SYD - Perceived, perhaps. Anyone who resents a brilliant, synchronic and egalitarian future probably doesn’t like what I do. For instance, those mired in ancient ritual and proscriptions; who hand over their daily existence to some defunct, pretentious and outrageously vapid, rigidly enforced belief system.

DREW - Is there anyone of the current generation whose ideas about or vision of the future excites you?

SYD - The prospect of cooperative artificial intelligence and what this means for successfully unscrambling the ‘mystery’ of life, why we are and how to solve the problems we have created for ourselves. If we can promote intelligent inquiry as opposed to enforced ignorance, we might just make it.

DREW - The way you  emphasize  the social dimension of your futurism reminds me a lot of Buckminster Fuller. Has he influenced you at all?

SYD - I admire the inventive breadth of Fuller. Of course I don’t begin to understand the mathematics behind his exotic design accomplishments, but his logic is unassailable. I wouldn’t say he’s influenced me but his genius inspires. 

DREW - What kind of work are you most interested in pursuing at this point in your career?

SYD - Creating response to challenge. Two areas of design I have been unlucky in: designing a super yacht that gets into the water and an entertainment venue that I would label with the eponymous ‘Mead  World.’ I know that sounds ambitious. I almost had that chance with Michael Jackson, two times.

DREW - You almost worked with Michael Jackson twice? What happened?

SYD - Michael Jackson was a fan of mine, honestly. He flew me and my partner, Roger Servick, to Hawaii for his History Tour show as his personal guest. He had all of my books because he liked to cruise through bookstores, particularly Hennessey and Ingalls in Santa Monica. He found my books there and I had meetings with him on several occassions: once in Hawaii after that show, once in Hollywood, once in Bahrain, and, most recently, once at the Hotel Bel Air just before his unsolved death. All these meetings were about consultant possibilities, which went through pre-production stages but were never finished. Nevertheless, Michael would call me personally for my opinion and he is the single Hollywood celebrity to ever make personal contact. I miss his friendship very much. 

DREW - How do you feel about whimsy and absurdity? Some of your designs really defy physical logic and I get the sense that you like to incorporate a little bit of comedy.

SYD - Well, I never thought about it that way. Whimsy is interesting as long as it does not get naively ‘cheesy’. There is a humorous charm in deliberately creating an inventive send-up to kitsche: I invented a ‘whimsical’ name for the style in Blade Runner; I called it ‘trash-chic’. I do draw cartoons often as a relief from executing tight design illustration. 

DREW - Also, those naked figures combined with the heavy use of red and other warm colors in some of your more recent pieces suggest a sexual turn in your work… I’m thinking of some of the Hypervan images included in the series we are presenting in the issue.

SYD - Our American culture is a devastating pairing of almost Victorian horror at ‘nakedness’ with a blatant bombardment of ‘sexual’ innuendo in merchandising, movies, television series, and associated media. I think it is rather silly to read or listen to some of the pompous rants of mega-church poseurs and other self-appointed monitors of ‘moral standards’. I have often thought that a constant barrage of rhetoric by these preposterous paragons of self-announced ‘virtue’ reflects nothing less than a psychosis that is fascinated by what they’re not supposed to be titillated by. A kind of bi-polar desire to watch ‘sex’ stuff and denounce it as moral degradation.

DREW - How do you cope with the fact that the future never really arrives?

SYD - The future arrives in bits and  pieces, constantly. The future doesn’t start from zero, it starts with the entire accumulation that is represented by ‘now.’ What we do now actually invents the future. If we celebrate crap, guess what? I strive to depict my futures  as bright, functional, well conceived and consistently elegant. At least, I can say that I didn’t contribute to everything going to hell. 

DREW - Do you think we will ever sufficiently imagine the future?

SYD - The future sort of makes itself as a result of the total flow of events that are caused by all of us. Virulent, psychotic anomalies that force punitive rule systems down people’s craws insults intelligence. As I said before, if we can assist intelligence in triumphing over enforced stupidity, we might just make it to a workable and enjoyable future.

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