Back to the future

Back to the future

Designer Syd Mead celebrates a lifetime of pointing the way to other worlds

By Michael Saltzman 10/05/2006

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According to Syd Mead, the future is looking up. The legendary designer, who makes his home in Pasadena’s woodsy South Arroyo neighborhood, has enjoyed a nearly five-decade career imagining the future for a living. His visions of sleek silver cars, teeming metallic skylines and giant robotic greyhounds — all well lit and efficient — have been employed by everyone from the Ford Motor Co. to Warner Bros. Studios. And he’s gained a devoted cult of admirers too, not only for his detailed futurist scenarios but also for his astounding ability with paint and brush.

Mead’s work has long remained the secret of design professionals and Hollywood insiders, as well as art students and science fiction fans who have done their research. But with a 2006 National Design Award for his work, a new documentary film on his life and career and a rare gallery showing in downtown Los Angeles, the time is right for everyone to discover the beautiful visions of Syd Mead.

“I’m essentially a visual storyteller,” Mead says matter-of-factly.

Born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1933, Mead was drawing machinery by the time he was 3. In grade school, he drew classmates’ dogs and charged them a quarter for the pictures. After serving three years in the military, he attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, and from there Ford snapped him up for employment. But to Mead’s restless imagination, the company’s time clock-governed environment felt like a straitjacket.

In 1970 he founded Syd Mead, Inc., the freelance venture that saw him designing hi-fi stereos for Philips, flying palaces for Saudi royalty and futurist images for Hollywood. His film work includes designs for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” “Tron,” “2010” and “Mission: Impossible III,” as well as extensive set and vehicle designs for the 1982 sci-fi classic “Blade Runner,” the project for which he remains best known today.

This year, the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum recognized Mead’s singular career at its National Design Awards, selecting him as the recipient of its Special Jury Commendation.

“They told me, ‘We were going to give you the lifetime achievement award, but you’re not old enough,’” Mead says. “So I thought, ‘That’s cool.’”

Next to the other award categories, such as Fashion Design and Landscape Design, the Jury Commendation serves as something of a catchall for unusual cases.

“When you look at the award recipients, most of them come from the world of practical, real-world design,” says Michael Bierut, a partner at Pentagram Design and one of this year’s jury members. “Syd Mead works at the other end of the spectrum. He renders worlds and scenarios out of his head and makes them more real than real. And really, that’s what the creative end of design is supposed to be.”

Mead explains his eligibility for the award more bluntly: “I don’t fit into a category.”

To complement the award, Mead is also enjoying attention as the subject of a new independent documentary. Pasadena filmmaker Joaquin Montalvan shot and edited 26 hours of interview footage — including more than nine with Mead himself — to compile “Visual Futurist: The Art & Life of Syd Mead.” He spoke with admirers ranging from Steven Lisberger, the director of “Tron,” to Chuck Jordan, the former design chief for General Motors.

“Syd commands a lot of respect,” Montalvan says. “It’s like you mention his name and a door opens.”

The film also provides an in-depth look at Mead’s artwork — quite literally. Montalvan’s shots plunge inside and around Mead’s paintings in slow zooms and pans. With an ambient soundtrack by Grammy-nominated composer Richard Souther, the technique produces a hypnotic and gently spiritual tone.

“Visual Futurist” premiered July 23 at the Dances With Films Festival in Los Angeles, where it won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. One rabid Syd Mead fan drove all the way from Sacramento to make the show.

Montalvan is now entertaining offers for distribution. He says the film will be available for purchase in 2007.

Originally, the director became aware of Mead through “Blade Runner,” but he soon discovered another side to his subject.

“The rest of his work is fundamentally different,” Montalvan says. “If you look at all of Syd Mead’s stuff, it’s much brighter.”

When asked about “Blade Runner,” Mead professes wonder that the movie has proved so iconic. “It’s in the Library of Congress, in the company of ‘Casablanca,’ ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Gone With the Wind,’” he says proudly. But he also admits, without hesitation, that his own worldview is far less bleak.

“I was hired to help [director Ridley Scott] make a noir film,” he says. “With cautions as to social evolution and the madness currently assaulting the Western frame of mind, I think things are going to get better. We have more people working for the future than ever before.”

For those who want to see Mead’s visions up close and personal, Crewest Gallery in downtown Los Angeles is currently hosting “The Hidden Futures,” a group exhibit featuring three pieces by the designer. Mead’s relationship to gallery culture has always been testy — he calls it a “business of pleasing people who might buy something they don’t understand” — and accordingly his paintings seldom show in public.

“It’s so rare to see his work in person and examine it up close,” says Man One, the Los Angeles graffiti artist who co-founded Crewest. “I can’t even fathom how he paints with small brushes and gets that super-high realism. … People come in here thinking those are computer-generated images.”

Crewest specializes in urban and underground artists, but Man One sees no problem fitting Mead into this set.

“Whether he knows it or not, he’s inspired a lot of this street culture,” he says.

Whatever legacy he’s already left, Mead, now a lively 73, is still hard at work. He mentions new jobs: an “attraction on top of a large building” in Tokyo and a potential film project he can’t discuss. It seems he’ll be working at his paint-stained drafting board for years to come, rendering the future.

Asked what he sees ahead for technology, Mead has plenty of answers.

“I think there will come a time when there will be no particular point in owning a car,” he says. “I think you’ll be able to just call a car. It’ll come to your house, and away you go. The car becomes its own entity.”

And for the human race?

“I think we’re going to be biologically evolved by our own efforts,” he says. “We’re going to take over evolution. I mean, sex choice can be done now to guarantee the sex of a child before it’s born. What’s going to happen when you can dial in more intelligence?”

But why has Mead always been so fascinated by the future? What keeps him going forward?

Sitting in his low-lying living room, with leafy trees shimmering outside, Mead stops and considers the question.

“It’s mysterious,” he says. “It gives you a clean slate.”

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