To anyone interested in science fiction art and design, Syd Mead will already be well-known. The list of films he’s worked on is intimidating, from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, TRON, Short Circuit, Aliens, Time Cop, Mission Impossible 3, to Elysium.
He’s worked with numerous companies both abroad and domestic, including Sony, Minolta, United State Steel, Honda, Bandai, and Philips.
My absolute favorite pieces of his deal with some form of transportation or cityscape. He’s adapt at rendering both the idealistic, utopian future, and the post-apocalypse, deteriorated future. In both, the machines stand as a mark of the ingenuity and accomplishments of man.
The centering of the machines in his utopian work leads to a sense that these societies are driven by the sole success of manufacturing and industry, and more specifically, of the transportation industry. It places the machine on the pedestal and grants it status as man’s greatest achievement. It is a symbiotic relationship, but one in which the success of one clearly defines the success of the other.
In his darker visions of the future, the machine’s existence within its broken-down environment, many times shrouded by other discarded bits of failed industry, stands as a symbol of the past might of societal inventiveness. In these portraits of decaying urban life, the machine most often remains elegant, regardless of visible wear and tear. It is a sign of what was once great—a reminder of the possibilities within an impossible world.
Mead is also a master at designing things that at once feel both a part of the real world and of another. His best work functions to excite the possibilities while at the same time display something that can’t exist. One of my favorite––and one of his most iconic––designs is the Spinner from Blade Runner. With its projected wheels, large cockpit, and smooth back, it is a design that is both impossible yet understated and practical.
In a sense, this stems from a desire inherent in futuristic art to produce something the viewer hasn’t seen before. The tendency is to create things that therefore can’t exist. However, Mead’s creations never seem unnecessarily out of place within their confines. In as much as the machines are the focus of the pieces, the surrounding environment’s function is to either advance the believability of the machine’s existence, or to paint a contrast to it.
These are just a few ways in which his images work. He’s a master at presenting new and exciting ideas, but by using real-life touchstones to do so. There is a tangible quality to his work without grounding it in total reality. In short, he creates dreams—always connected to reality, but never totally bound by it.