Despite little of his work existing beyond two dimensions, ‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead has inspired countless professional car designers. He’s worked on vehicle, city and character designs for cult films like Blade Runner and Tron (both 1982) and more recently Elysium (2013) and Tomorrowland (2015), product design for Sony and Phillips – including an electric car concept as far back as 1973 for the latter – plus aircraft, ship and hotel interiors and pretty much anything else you (or he) can imagine. Which is why car designers love him.
Ferrari design boss Flavio Manzoni calls him a ‘visionary mind’ while ex-BMW Group design chief Chris Bangle dubs him ‘the Oscar Wilde of designers: when you think you have a new idea, you find he’s drawn it all before – and usually decades ago.’ In March 2016 he was awarded a lifetime achievement award by specialist website Car Design News.
The key to the breadth of his influence is that unlike other imaginative artists, Mead is very much a designer too, and one specifically trained in car design.
He started his professional career in 1959, at Ford’s advanced design studio where he jokes that his ‘contribution to American automobilia was the tail light on the ’64 Falcon Futura’. In fact he also designed the 1961 Ford Gyron show car – a suitably space-age wedge of wonder – before quitting to become a full-time commercial designer and illustrator.
Throughout the ’60s he worked on lucrative accounts for large American corporations including marketing books for US Steel. These featured brilliantly-imagined and rendered futuristic vehicles that became an overnight sensation in the design world and are now highly sought-after collector’s items.