Industrial designer and 'Futurist'

Born: July 18, 1933;

Died: December 30, 2019.

SYD Mead, who has died aged 86, was an American designer and concept artist for film whose official website describes him most simply in a single word; “futurist”.

As if to emphasise his own maxim that science fiction is “reality ahead of schedule”, Mead’s product, architectural and concept designs for a variety of international corporate clients were superseded by his work designing for film, with which he helped lend a unique and believably tactile view of the world to films including Blade Runner, Aliens, Tron and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Already a highly experienced and in-demand commercial artist with a particularly visionary sensibility, Mead was invited to work on his first film by the visual effects creator John Dykstra, who had just won an Academy Award for his work on Star Wars. With a brief to create “something no man had ever seen before”, Mead devised the otherworldly plains of the intergalactic machine creature V’ger for 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, bringing a grittily realistic look to the film.

His next work was arguably his most defining, and it was the first film on which he used his self-chosen new credit of ‘visual futurist’. In designing the futuristic, smoke-belching dystopia of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), including the grimy technology and vehicles of this future, he created a vision of tomorrow which had perhaps only been half-glimpsed in George Lucas’ early films; one which was convincing for its worn, lived-in appearance.

“They’re made to work,” Mead told the US culture website, Vulture, of his technology designs for Blade Runner in 2013. “It was industrial design in reverse. You start with the original idea and design, then overlay it with stuff that makes it work past its design lifespan. It gives you a retro look underneath that looks rational.”

After this, he envisaged the neon-streaked video game world of Tron (1982), Peter Hyams’ 2001: A Space Odyssey sequel 2010 (1984) and James Cameron’s classic and tech-heavy world of xenomorph conflict Aliens (1984).

Later, he teamed with Hyams again on the action flick Timecop (1994), with Brian DePalma on Mission to Mars (2000), with Brad Bird on the George Clooney-starring sci-fi fantasy Tomorrowland (2015) and – most appropriately of all – with Denis Villeneuve on the long-awaited sequel Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Although Mead returned to film throughout his life, it was his first foray into the latter film’s world which rendered his work not just professionally well-regarded, but truly iconic.

Mead won a Special Achievement Award for Blade Runner at the London Critics Circle Film Awards in 1983, a Visual Effects Society Visionary Award in 2017, and numerous other professional accolades. He was also credited with the robot design on family film Short Circuit (1986) and as an inspiration for the AT-AT walkers in Lucas’ The Empire Strikes Back (1980).

In earlier years Mead’s work brought him such big-name clients as the Philips Corporation, Sony, Minolta, Seibu, Bandai and Honda, while his visionary paintings for US Steel have taken on a myth of their own; and, years later, they persuaded director Neil Blomkamp to hire him for his film Elysium (2013).

Before and after his death, tributes were paid by the entrepreneur Elon Musk, Ferrari design head, Flavio Manzoni, and former BMW head of design, Chris Bangle, who called him “the Oscar Wilde of designers”.

Sydney Jay Mead was born in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1933, the son of a Baptist minister who encouraged his son’s interest in early science fiction. His family moved throughout the Western United States during his youth, and he graduated from high school in Colorado Springs, Colorado, before serving three years in the US Army. Upon leaving, he studied at the Art Center School (Now the ArtCenter College of Design) in Los Angeles, from where he graduated with distinction. Straight out of college, he was recruited as a designer by the Ford Motor Company.

Mead died at home in Pasadena, California, after fighting with lymphoma for three years, and is survived by his partner Roger Servick. Interviewed in 2015, he made one of his final predictions of the future: “I think the whole social contract is going to be enforced by sheer weight of necessity,” he said hopefully. “We’re creating some marvelous, marvelous stuff by the minute. There has to be a stable social, economic system to support that, so that you don’t have to worry about everything going wrong.”