In the beginning there was pulp sci-fi. Lurid cartoons of future cities riddled with aerial tramways and flying cars, and throbbing with atomic power. For the most part they populated the covers of newsstand offerings like Popular Science and Amazing Tales. But all that was before Syd. He changed all that. He was a futurist. He invented the term. He created a new genre.
One can forgive the nearly one thousand visitors at the opening exhibition of Syd Mead: Progressions if they missed the irony: there was the acclaimed futurist himself, dressed all in white, receiving friends in the faux-medieval courtyard of the Forest Lawn Mortuary and Museum. Joining the throngs of the faithful as they jostled for a better view of his paintings, and searching in vain for even one fellow architect, one could not help wondering why the place was not swarmed by young designers. And one was reminded once again of just how insular the architects of the “Me Generation” had become.
On display were images depicting cityscapes and buildings that might have been snatched from the most recent international competitions. Lustrous metallic surfaces, twisting towers, parametric volumes, all hauntingly beautiful, and all bearing dates—wait for it—from the early 1970s and ’80s! That’s right! Before most of the maestros of Rhino and Maya had been potty trained. Yet from the depths of the postmodern era, like a latter-day Jules Verne, or a reincarnated Piranesi, Mead had anticipated the seamless, gestural designs that are multiplying on screens around the world.
Mead is perhaps best known among architects as the visionary designer whose work on 1982’s Blade Runner set the stage for the edgy, post-apocalyptic style that shoved postmodernism into oblivion. Originally hired as an Art Center alum car “thug” to visualize Rick Deckard’s hovering cop car, he couldn’t resist plunging the auto, in true Mead fashion, into imaginary street scenes cluttered with a goulash of cryptic signs and symbols and draped with a spaghetti of cables and pipes, as though the whole of Los Angeles was on life support. Those images, now part of our collective subconscious, 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.
The surprise is that the images in Mead’s luminous gouache paintings from the 1970s and ’80s, 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 that is simultaneously ecstatic and revelatory.
There is no doubt that Mead’s genre, heavy on willow-thin, armed vixens, shoulder pads, and upturned collars, has sadly consigned his best work to the science-fiction catalogue, especially among those whose aesthetic appreciation is dictated by political correctness. But Mead seems unfazed. True, the products of his imaginings are often situated in star fields and endless interplanetary space, or in the purple haze of an other-worldly sunset reflected from the spit-polished canopy of an idling coupe. But what’s important is the existence of, indeed the fact of, those reflections, the fact of the sunset, the fact of the coupe in the foreground, framing a distant view of a many-spired city, and the fact of the deeply textured fabric of the driver’s jacket that conjures references to Velázquez and Tintoretto. Yes, the paintings do exalt a now-banished monarchy, and yes, the bejeweled courtiers do embody the appalling, self-indulgent posture of the aristocracy, but those issues should not displace the astonishing artistry compressed into a few millimeters of paint.
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 scholars like Rudolph Arnheim, but for poor mortals, it is the proto-erotic, fetishized imagery itself that lingers in the memory.
Surprisingly, Mead has only occasionally stepped out of the world of fantasy—whether cinematic or graphic—into the world of steel and concrete. His concepts should blend seamlessly into our near-seamless global economy. One thinks of Neil Denari, and Zaha Hadid, and Tom Wiscombe, whose gestures and surfaces have more than a whiff of Syd, or of Marc Newson, whose products, but for their jocular nature, might have a place at the table. But that’s another story. Right now, I’m planning to dine at Bar Basque, Syd’s first venture into the “real” world. I’m told the food is delicious, but I’m going there for the design.