The imagination – the idea, supersedes technique. – Syd Mead
Honoring Syd Meade only as an illustrator is like going to a gathering of world leaders and only discussing local politics. True, Mead’s palette of fissionable materials and extra-terrestrial command of light, seem to have come directly from some cosmic deity, and those vortexes of space and substance have an alpha sensuality that eludes description, but beyond the virtuosity, beyond the sheer joy of letting your eyes rove in and out of his images, there is an animating vision, a vision which channels the aspirations, and ultimately crystallizes our collective yearnings for the future.
Its no coincidence that today’s “starchitects”, in league with a revolution in building technology, have found a way to realize those images—to render them in steel and fiber-reinforced concrete, diachromatic glass, and titanium fish scales—because they resonate not only with the connoisseur patron, but also and even more loudly with the denim-clad tourist. Of course those seamless museums and towers won’t ever bathe in the perpetual twilight of Mead’s landscapes. Nor with they likely get the chance to be populated by the uniformed beings that so perfectly occupy the deep space of his imagination.
What sets Mead apart is the fusion of that imagination with an almost pragmatic sense of the practical. Doors swing open, stairs beckon, structures are robust. Things are grounded. Fantasy is precisely channeled.
Looking through his self-published folios from the nineteen-eighties, one can’t help but notice the dramatic changes in scale, the compression of space, from the tiniest exquisite detail to the vast, even cosmic, scope. Deliberately composed, with intricate continuities defining virtual arcs and intersections, those drawings established a genre that, despite being produced by obsolete tools such as frisket and compressor—all the gear and mess of the trade from years past—display a surface that seems to be beyond the reach of the human hand.
I visited the artist on the cusp of the digital revolution. Photoshop and Illustrator were just beginning to remainder the drafting table, and Mead had been teaching himself the wiles of the digital airbrush. He showed me how one could create a digital mask in much the same way as he or an assistant might cut a frisket, and enthusiastically demonstrated the ease with which he could “mix” a color—right on the screen! For him, there was never any question about mastering this new and wondrous tool; he was like a teen with the latest version of Grand Theft Auto, anxious to see what it could do. For my part, I marveled at the ease with which he was able to merge his medium with a digital assist which complemented, yet never, to the present day, replaced the analogue skills he has honed for a lifetime.
Those skills—the lifetime analogue ones—had brought him to the peak of the profession. He had few if any rivals. The cadre of masters, who included Charlie White, Dave Willardson, and H. R. Giger, artists who regularly created artwork and posters for motion pictures, events, and recordings, had followed in the tracks of graphic greats like Lautrec and Alexander Anderson, while Mead had veered, by chance or design, into the world of film, industrial design, and what became his credit line in Bladerunner: the Visual Futurist.
For him, it was an easy hat to wear. At Art Center College of Design, as a trans major, he had been projecting the future via the look of vehicles to come, and later, at one of his first jobs, helped design the Studebaker Avanti, a radically futuristic, asymmetrical, coke-bottle-shaped fiberglass missile that lacked even the customary grille, and still considered a landmark in Raymond Loewy’s design legacy. Fast forward to director Ridley Scott, who was searching for the design of the vehicles in his film adaptation of the Phillip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. He found Mead, who not only gave shape to Decker’s hovercar, but plunged it, in true Mead fashion, into imaginary street scenes cluttered with a goulash of cryptic signs and symbols–draped with a spaghetti of cables and pipes–as if Los Angeles was on life support. Mead included layers of dilapidated, broken, patois-infused signs that formed the crust of the film’s look. Those images, now part of our collective unconscious, propelled Mead into a stratosphere of designers whose vision embraced consumer goods, transportation, and everything else the eye could see—down to the typography on a food cart.
It was a first. To an audience accustomed to the flimsy futurism of Star Trek, the brooding, confusing, misty stew of left-overs fostered by Mead’s backgrounds set a new, post apocalyptic stage for the action, and arguably established a cinematic genre which continues through franchises like X-Men and Batman.
Now, if all this seems besides the point for an inductee to the Society of Illustrator’s Hall of Fame, one might consider what is to the point. Illustration, first and foremost, is an act of imagination. The spaces, situations, manifestations, and so forth are solely the creations of the illustrator. The technique may range from spatula to 6-aught line work, but what we value is not the scrawl, not even the character of the scrawl, but the “fit” of the technique to the meaning and content of the image. That’s the way in which we can appreciate both Ralph Steadman and Piranesi, and THAT’s where Mead’s hyper-lit velva-sheen surfaces perfectly fit his subjects.
Those luminous, gouche paintings from the seventies and eighties, while not by any means photo-realistic, create such a powerful sense of being right there, that even the most sophisticated digital renderings seem pallid by comparison. These are images composed with such flair, such lyrical attention to the combined effect of reflections, surfaces, and primary form, that the mind is lost in a space which is simultaneously ecstatic, revelatory, and descriptive.
Mead’s drawings illustrate his designs. It’s not the other way around. Where a less nimble mind might commission an illustration as a final step, as a means of explaining a design concept, Mead is a one stop shop. The illustration and the design are inextricably joined in a way that explores in intimate detail everything from joinery to surface, from seam to shell. It is this one-ness that informs his designs for films such as Tron and Elysium, for toy icons such as “The New Yamato,” luxury yachts, and custom interiors for 747 aircraft. Each springs from a sketched out concept which evolves to a mature design through a process of illustration.
We revere the plates drawn by Audubon, as well as those of Glaser and Chwast and their fellow PushPinners, and Polish Circus Posters, and the impish images of Folon, but where do you put DaVinci and Piranesi? Are DaVinci’s sketches a form of illustration? There is clearly a line between artists whose work is confined to the paper on which it is created, and those for whom the drawing is a launch pad, an instrument that describes an unrealized yet possible dimensional reality.
Like the great classical artists, Mead’s primary palette is light. Limpid, hard-edged, violent even, it splashes, spurts, and eddies in mercurial pools, restlessly articulating his subjects. One cannot detect Mead’s hand in this. The brushstrokes (yes, he used brushes, young turks) melt into the subject matter, revealing first the glint of a visor, then the almost imperceptible texture of a darkly shadowed overhang. The overhang, the shadow, and the barely visible activity within might be framed by a highly reflective pool, leading the eye to an off-camera transaction scorched into a jagged rockscape. There is intrigue, a mesmerizing stillness, and a fully realized, yet improbable culture framed as carefully as a tourist poster. The geometry, rendered in great, sweeping gestures that bind the composition would have provided a feeding frenzy for art historian Rudolf Arnheim, but for poor mortals, one suspects, it is the proto-erotic, fetishized imagery itself that lingers in the memory.
As Mead has said:“There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make.”
Professor of Architecture, UCLA