The Man Who Designed the Future
Spencer Nelson

It’s often said that we imagine the future the way we’ve seen it represented. If the saw-makers are right, one man in particular has shaped our visions of the coming years.

Syd Mead calls himself a visual futurist. In reality, he’s an architect-cum-engineer-cum-car-, plane-, industrial-, and interior- designer-cum-production consultant, but more on that last title later. His contributions remain broadly unheralded, though his vision of the future has shaped industrial design and science fiction alike.

Syd Mead, Mobilage (1985, Gouache.)

Mead began his career working for Ford’s styling team but soon moved on to independent work, consulting for companies like Phillips Electronics and Mistubishi. His aesthetic made him as in-demand as could be. He designed Adnan Kashoggi’s yacht, one of the largest in the world at the time. The ship became the set for a Bond movie, inspired a Queen song, and was later owned by Donald Trump. He invented the Honda Prelude. The Sultan of Brunei commissioned him to design the interior of his 747 (number eight here), where Mead’s purview extended from the plane’s general layout down to its cutlery.

Mead’s impressive creations attracted the attentions of Oscar-regulars James Cameron and Ridley Scott. In their employ, he designed the time’s most prominent visions of the future. He worked on Tron, Aliens, and Blade Runner, but even those who haven’t seen his movies will find that Mead’s gear is imitated in hundreds of other films. He advised the productions in crafting cityscapes, virtual interfaces, cars, spaceships, planes, and cultures. Many of his designs, such as touch screens, now appear commonplace but were ground-breaking in the days before the personal computer. Mead also worked on Timecop, Johnny Mnemonic, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and most recently, Mission Impossible III with J.J. Abrams.

Tron (1982) command center

Mead’s talents have been put to work in a wide range of ways, but only infrequently do we catch a glimpse of unadulterated Mead. He studied art in college and is by trade a painter as much as a designer. His paintings, only rarely exhibited but recently on view at BravinLee Programs, show a well-trained hand. His use of gouache, especially in his atmospheric depictions and chromed machines, is almost Turneresque (for comparison, look at the handling of light in Fishermen at Sea). While the paintings are alluring for their ideas about human progress, their rendering is perhaps the most attractive part of his work. They depict a utopian future of sculpted bodies, sleek cars and immaculate design, giving the show its title: Future (Perfect).

Certainly the “coolest” thing about Syd Mead is his prescience. In his Running of the 200th KD (1975), commissioned by the Kentucky Derby, he predicts probably the two most important trends of the 21st century. A man holds a small device displaying scores sent from a disc, labeled “INTRNET," floating over the racetrack. Mead envisions smartphones and the Internet in one fell swoop—mind you, this was six years before the name “Internet” appeared in its current use.

Close-up of Syd Mead, Running of the 200th KD (1975, Gouache)

For many, the pure fantasy of sci-fi is a turn-off. Yet Mead’s visions are grounded in substance. The cityscapes of Blade Runner draw on Mayan, Japanese, and other architectural traditions (evident in BR), creating a convincing reality. These futures are not just sheen, shine, and fancy, but are considered and intelligent projections of human development.

Blade Runner (1982) cityscape

While Mead’s nature appears highly artistic, he has an engineer’s temperament. He paints with gouache, or as he puts it: “French for bitchy colors.” Very down to earth, he remains a Luddite in spite of his futurist subject, designing primarily with pen and paper. In an age dominated by CGI a la Avatar and John Carter, Mead creates a future in his head.

BravinLee Gallery displaying Syd Mead

Mead also designed Bar Basque in West Midtown Manhattan and currently lives in California. For more photos, check out this “Portfolio of Possibilities” Mead composed for U.S. Steel in the ’60s.