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“Visual Futurist” Syd Mead’s exhibition debuts at LCAD

By MARRIE STONE 

“There are more people in the world who make things than there are people who think of things to make.”

 –Syd Mead (1933-2019)

Syd Mead might be the most prodigious artist you’ve never heard of. Unless you’re in the film industry, or otherwise well-versed in industrial concept design, his name may not look familiar. His work, however, will. Mead’s imagination dreamed up the worlds portrayed in Blade Runner, TRON, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Aliens, Time Cop, 2010, Short Circuit, Johnny Mnemonic, Mission Impossible-3, Elysium and, most recently, Blade Runner 2049. 

He earned the title “Visual Futurist” for good reason. Trained as an artist and spending the first half of his career creating product and architectural designs for corporate clients, Mead soon became known for his ability to visualize the future and render it in astonishing detail. As Richard Taylor (Effects Supervisor for TRON) once said of Mead, “His illustrations remind you of something you’ve never seen before.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Visual Futurist” Syd Mead (July 1933 – December 2019)

Mead’s first loves, since age 3, were art and cars. “My parents left me alone just to draw. I drew from the time I could hold a pencil and, right from the very first, I was fascinated with scenarios. In effect, I was creating my own world,” Mead said in his documentary, Visual Futurist: The Art & Life of Syd Mead. His images were full of cars with people waving out the windows. He kept drawing even while serving in the Army in Okinawa and sent his sketches to John Reinhart, chief designer at Ford Motor Company, who urged Mead to get a degree from the Art Center School in Los Angeles (now the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena). After Mead graduated with great distinction in 1959, he went to work for Ford. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead “Sentinel” cover (1979)

Mead’s 60-year career saw him working for a string of corporate clients, illustrating books and catalogues, rendering architectural and concept designs and contributing to the redesign of some iconic Japanese toys. When the film industry found him, Mead sunk his mind into science fiction, building entire futuristic worlds with only a paintbrush and his imagination. 

Todd Smith, chair of Laguna College of Art & Design (LCAD) Entertainment Design Department, selected Mead’s traveling exhibition “Progressions” for installation at the LCAD Gallery. “Progressions” features roughly 30 works from Mead’s collection and represents the full arc of the artist’s career. The retrospective includes more than 50 years of artwork, from Mead’s academic days to recent works produced before he died.

Visitors are invited to download a free app from Mead’s website (www.sydmead.com) that allows them to interact with the art. Rotate and view Mead’s vehicles in three dimensions, and experience original line drawings and rough color drafts to show the progression of work, from crude pencil sketches to the final product. One piece of original art – “Shoulder of Orion” – was produced exclusively for this exhibition. It’s accompanied by line drawings and color rough art. 

“‘Progressions’ is a title chosen by Mead to acknowledge the progression of his artistic skill level, technique and design sense from his early days at Art Center College of Design right up to January 2012 when he completed “Shoulder of Orion,” a gouache rendering created exclusively for this exhibition,” said Roger Servick, business manager for Syd Mead, Inc. “He personally selected 50 examples to represent his favorite works. Most are here today at the LCAD Gallery, in Laguna Beach, not far from what was once his studio in Capistrano Beach for many years where many of these were created.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Hypervan Profile” by Syd Mead (Gouache), 2005

Smith first encountered the exhibition while driving in Glendale in 2012. He saw a sign outside Forest Lawn Cemetery advertising the show and drove straight there. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Smith. “All the work was so good. And seeing it in person, seeing his brush work in person, it’s so different than seeing it in books. It stuck with me.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead appears at the opening reception of “Progressions” at the Forest Lawn Museum in 2012

It took 10 years, but Smith finally has an opportunity to show Mead’s exhibition in his home gallery in Laguna. “It’s a great opportunity for everyone in Laguna to see this work. For high school students interested in the industry, it’s a good educational tool to see what the industry is like, how people used to work and what’s possible. It gives people a chance to see what you can actually do with this medium in industrial design and illustration in general.”

“This medium” is known as gouache, and Mead was a master of it. Gouache is an opaque watercolor that’s been used for at least 12 centuries. It’s heavier, denser and more opaque than traditional watercolor, resulting in a flat wash which gives the painting a matte finish. While the images have a rich depth, it’s incredibly difficult to get a consistent color. Here’s where Mead’s genius lies. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s “Mobilage” (Gouache), 1985

“Learning to paint in gouache helps students improve their digital painting skills. It’s challenging and it can be frustrating to learn. But once they get into it, they start to see the benefits of it,” Smith said.

For non-technicians, there’s still a lot to learn from Mead about creativity and imagination. Fans of Mead’s work might know him best for his inventive and visionary transportation designs. Mead loved vehicles – sleek racecars, opulent yachts, private jumbo jets, futuristic trains, space-age buses and intergalactic ships. You name it, and Mead drew it. Then he dreamed up things no one had ever imagined. The key to Mead’s concept cars was their internal consistency with their surroundings. The world he drew around his vehicles had to support his designs. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s “Megacoach” (Gouache), 2010

“If you create a visual picture of something in an alternate world, it should look that way for a reason,” Mead said. “If it’s consistent, people will like it better than if it’s discordant. A lot of my argument with futurists is they skip the logic of why they’re doing what they’re doing. It doesn’t look like it fits.” You have to be philosophical about it, he said. To reinforce his point, Mead referred to science fiction as “reality ahead of schedule.” 

Over the course of his 86 years, Mead gave creativity a lot of thought. “Here’s the core thing about creativity,” Mead said in an interview. “You have to be three people: (1) the person who’s creating the idea to solve the problem; (2) the technician solving the problem with a technique or format that’s usable; and (3) the person offstage who’s watching those other two people doing what they do. If you can’t detach yourself from what you’re doing – as a sort of surveillance uber-mentality – you’re not going to do good work because you get too fascinated with what you’re doing. That’s the mistake. Hubris kills.” 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s “Disaster at Syntron” (Gouache), 1978

It’s easy to believe some folks are born with wild imaginations. Maybe fantastic scenarios just effortlessly spring to their minds. Mead pushed against that assumption. “Imagination is essentially memory,” Mead said in a 2016 interview for the documentary, Closer Than We Think. “It’s recording and memorizing what you’ve seen so you have experience. Imagination is the creation of putting those elements together in different combinations. That is true whether you’re writing music, mathematical code, or new formulas. It’s a process of arranging knowledge into new formats. That’s imagination.” 

Though Mead passed away in 2019, he left behind some solid advice for students. “The advice I would give to those entering the field of design – remember everything you see. Fill your mind and have your own catalogue of triggers. Everything from natural shapes and forms and colorations to mechanicalness. You have to be able to pay attention to the technical aspect, but inside the boundary of imaginative invention. If you can successfully invent your way around the problem, you’ve won the game.”

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

“Hypervan and Crimson” (Gouache), 2001

Even as Mead watched technology accelerate at exponential rates during the last few decades of his life, and witnessed its impact on society, he remained optimistic about the future. 

“The future is a composite,” Mead said. “It represents what everybody is doing, what they want to do, what they can do and our societal will to do it. The future is all of us going together somewhere. We don’t really know where. But you try to arrange it so when you get there, it’s nice. Who wants a total cesspool of trouble and worry? 

“I’ve been accused of creating a glossy, chrome-plated future. People who have a dim view of society accuse me of stealing their lowered expectations.” 

Mead said he remained an optimist because more smart people are working on solutions to difficult problems than ever before. “What drives the future is the quest of human intellect wanting to investigate its own curiosities and wanting solutions to unanswered questions,” he said. 

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Courtesy of Syd Mead, Inc.

Syd Mead’s vision of a future Bugatti (1957), painted while still a student at the Art Center College of Design

Before passing peacefully in his home on December 30, 2019, Mead’s final words were: “I am done here. They’re coming to take me back.”

Blade Runner, of course, was based on the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Which makes one wonder what Mead dreamed about. “Progressions” provides an opportunity to see for yourself, to peek inside the mind and imagination of one of the 20th century’s great visionaries.

“Progressions” will be on display at the LCAD Gallery, located at 374 Ocean Ave., from Thursday, Feb. 3 through Sunday, March 27. A reception was held on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m., in conjunction with the First Thursdays Art Walk. For more information, visit their website at https://www.lcad.edu/community/lcad-gallery/lcad-gallery or contact the gallery at 949.376.6000, ext. 289.

For more information about Syd Mead and his legacy, visit his website at https://sydmead.com.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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