Syd Mead, a designer whose wide-ranging work included envisioning vehicles of the future as well as helping to shape the look of environments in movies like “Blade Runner,” “Tron” and “Aliens,” died on Monday at his home in Pasadena, California. He was 86.
His spouse, Roger Servick, said the cause was lymphoma.
Mead started out in the car business, designing for Ford. By 1970 he had founded his own firm, Syd Mead Inc., and had a wide range of clients, working on architectural interiors and exteriors, restaurants, catalogs and more.
His first movie credit was in 1979 on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”; he was part of the special effects team and credited as a “production illustrator.” Three years later for “Blade Runner,” Ridley Scott’s film version of a Philip K. Dick novel about a bounty hunter who tracks down humanoid “replicants,” he was “visual futurist.” His other credits included “conceptual artist” on “Tron” (1982), “Aliens” (1986) and others; “vehicle designer” on “Mission to Mars” (2000); and “mask maker design” on “Mission: Impossible III” (2006).
He was the first to admit that his contributions to such projects were sometimes hard to quantify.
“All ideas go through three stages,” he told The Boston Globe in 1985. “The first stage is the idea itself. Thinking of that is a whole specialty in itself, because if something exists someone had to think of it.
“After that,” he continued, “the next stage is documentation. That can be anything from a set of sketches or an oil painting to a written description to a working model. The last step is manufacture. Making it real.
“Me, I’m hired to do the first two steps. I worry about the ideas, not the facts.”
That, though, was a bit disingenuous. Mead had a reputation for doing thorough research and making educated guesses about what was to come. A good Mead design looked amazing, but it also looked plausible.
“It’s believable, it’s stylish, it feels like it has gone through an evolutionary process to reach this design level,” Steven Lisberger, the director of “Tron,” said in the trailer for “Visual Futurist: The Art and Life of Syd Mead,” a 2006 documentary by Joaquin Montalvan. “And the only place it has done that evolutionary process is in Syd’s head.”
Sydney Jay Mead was born on July 18, 1933, in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Kenneth and Margaret Mead. His mother was a homemaker, and his father was a Baptist preacher, which meant the family moved frequently. Mead graduated from high school in Colorado Springs.
He served three years in the Army, stationed in Okinawa, then in 1959 graduated from the Art Center School of Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena) and went to work at Ford’s Advanced Styling Studio, where designers were exploring what cars of the future might look like. Some of his ideas were later seen in the Ford Falcon Futura, introduced in 1961.
After two years at Ford he did design work for various other companies, including United States Steel, before forming Syd Mead Inc. Philips Electronics was among his new firm’s biggest clients.
“His drawings for Philips Electronics in the mid-’70s featured magnetic preprogrammed learning capsules for junior college students,” Los Angeles magazine wrote in 2006, “and a three-dimensional home entertainment system that, had it ever been developed, might have proved superior to today’s high-definition TV.”
Although his work usually involved creating a fanciful future, it sometimes ended up depicting the actual future. A 2012 exhibition of his artwork in Manhattan included a painting from decades earlier that showed people using hand-held information devices; they could easily pass as modern-day smartphone users. In 1969 he envisioned a personal transportation system called a unipod that used gyroscope technology — what is now used in devices like the Segway personal transporter.
He also designed the interiors of private jets for rich clients, a futuristic look for a 2016 fashion show, and the food court of the Eventi Hotel in Chelsea (a future that didn’t last long; it was replaced two years after it opened in 2010).
In his movie work Mead was perhaps most often identified with “Blade Runner,” which depicted a bleak future. Servick, though, said that was an interpretation of someone else’s vision, not Mead’s own.
“He always tried to make sure that people knew that was not his idea of the future, that was Philip K. Dick’s idea of the future,” he said.
Mead’s view was considerably more optimistic. “What we need to do,” Servick said, summarizing it, “is work toward a better future, spend our efforts trying to make things better.”
Mead’s books included “Oblagon: Concepts of Syd Mead” (1996) and “Syd Mead’s Sentury” (2001). His artwork, much of it in gouache, a thicker, more opaque form of watercolor, was featured in numerous exhibitions.
Even well into the digital age, Mead retained a fondness for predigital methods.
“We still paint on cardboard with a stick with animal hairs stuck to the end,” he said in 2006. “Everything is still painted by hand. I’m old school. I’m analog.”