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Futurist Artist Syd Mead Has Died at 86

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BY December 31, 2019
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Artist Syd Mead, known for his work in concept art and industrial design, has died at the age of 86. While he had a healthy career as a visual artist and providing designs for companies, he was best known for his film work. He created iconic designs for films like Blade Runner and Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for instance. Here’s a remembrance of some of that work and of his life.

Artist Sydney Mead, the Early Life

The artist was born Sydney Jay Mead on July 18, 1933, in Saint Paul, MN. Mead’s father, a Baptist minister, enjoyed pulp magazines, which he would read to his son. These magazines not only served as an early exposure to science fiction, but they were also likely influential on Mead as a young artist. By the time he was in high school, Syd Mead had become competent at basic art techniques like shading and figure drawing.

However, despite the talent he clearly possessed, Mead did not immediately pursue art as a career. After his graduation from high school in Colorado Springs, CO, in 1951, Mead instead enlisted in the Army. After serving for 3 years, Mead then attended Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design (then the Art Center School in downtown Los Angeles). He graduated in 1959.

The Career of Artist Syd Mead

Upon graduation, Mead immediately began working for the Ford Motor Company in their Detroit-based Advanced Styling Studio. The Styling Studio produced concept art for Ford designs. After working for Ford for 2 years, Mead moved on to industrial work for other companies, designing promotional materials like catalogs.

Mead spent the bulk of the 1960s doing this kind of work, as well as product design. Then he struck out on his own with Syd Mead, Inc. in 1970. Under his own shingle, he provided illustration work and product design for companies like Philips Electronics. His eponymous company would also work with companies like Sony, Minolta, and Honda. Then Mead began his work in films.

The Future is Film

Having promoted himself as a consultant on futurism, Mead moved easily into concept design for movies. His first film work, as a production illustrator, was on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which inexplicably credits him as Syd Meade. At the same time, he was already influencing movies, albeit indirectly.

For instance, Joe Johnston of Industrial Light & Magic said in 2010 that the inspiration for the AT-ATs in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back was “…from a brochure by Syd Mead for US Steel.” Mead would go on to have an even greater impact on sci-fi movies, though.

After Star Trek, Mead went on to be the “visual futurist” for Blade Runner. Besides creating concept art for the look of the film, he also designed the “Spinner,” the film’s flying car. This would be a constant theme in Mead’s work, in which he would not only contribute to the concept art of a movie, but also design its elements. For example, he created the vehicle designs for Tron.

Mead worked on a number of other films throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including Aliens, Timecop, Tomorrowland, and Mission Impossible: III. He also worked on Blade Runner‘s 2017 sequel, Blade Runner: 2049. As with his previous work, he did a mix of concept art and design. For instance, he designed Short Circuit’s Number 5 robot, the patron saint of anyone who requires MORE IMPUT.

Exploring Syd Mead’s Work

It is difficult to sum up the breadth of Mead’s work because it is so vast. And after amassing such an impressive body of work, it’s no surprise that filmmakers started making movies about Mead himself. The documentary Visual Futurist: The Art & Life of Syd Mead was released in 2007, for example, although it now appears to be out of print. Mead was also the subject of the short doc 2019: A Future Imagined. The most comprehensive look at Mead’s work, however, is probably in books. 2017’s The Movie Art of Syd Mead: Visual Futurist contains “the most extensive collection of Mead’s visionary work ever printed,” according to its publisher. You can also see learn more at his official website, although it’s been sporadically available since the announcement of Mead’s death. His autobiography, A Future Remembered, incidentally, is exclusively sold through the site.

At the time of his death, the Art Directors Guild had just named Mead as the newest recipient of the William Cameron Menzies Award. The ceremony takes place next February. Mead is survived by his partner, manager Roger Servick, as well as his sister and her children. He will be laid to rest in a private ceremony at Glendale, California’s Forest Lawn cemetery.

What was your favorite Mead work? Let us know on social media or in the comments below.

featured image via The Blade Runner Partnership

MoviesBlade RunnerSyd MeadTron

Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at salome@comicyears.com.

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