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Design Lessons From A Century Of Sci-Fi

The curator for a new sci-fi exhibit at the Barbican explains how the genre has shaped design, from branding to architecture, over more than a century.

The Barbican Centre has been a storied center for performing and fine arts in London for decades. But this stoic, Brutalist building was recently transformed into the site of any science fiction lover’s dreams, filled with Star Trek paraphernalia, cover art from the novels of Jules Verne and Margaret Atwood, and film clips of Black Mirror and Jurassic Park. The Centre’s latest show, Into the Unknown: A Journey Through Science Fiction, is a sprawling exhibition of over a century’s worth of science fiction, both high- and low-brow, in literature, art and film.

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In putting together the show, guest curator Patrick Gyger wanted to show the different aspects of the genre, illuminating how science fiction has changed in various media in reaction to the times. “What is really important generally in sci-fi is the spaces in production media that drives creation,” says Gyger, a Swiss science fiction historian and writer. “The aesthetics [of science fiction] have changed over the years because of the ways that we create things.”

Co.Design asked Gyger to take us through the history of science fiction from the 19th century to today, and trace the trajectory of design.

19th Century: The Discovery Of Lost Worlds

Magazine cover, Amazing Stories (April 1926) #1, Agence Martienne. [Image: Courtesy coll. Maison d’Ailleurs / Agence Martienne]
When science fiction first emerged in literature, courtesy of pioneering sci-fi writers like Jules Verne and H.G.Wells, it was focused mostly on the discoveries of lost worlds—hidden deep in the ocean, as with the lands visited in Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, or on a nightmarish island in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau. These authors popularized science fiction as a genre along with Hugo Gernsback, who published the pulp magazine Amazing Stories. In the magazine, Gernsback also published the letters of people who wrote in to it, starting science fiction’s still-fervent culture of fandom.

How it influenced design: The other worlds explored in Amazing Stories influenced the legendary filmmaker and special-effects creator Ray Harryhausen in the early 20th century. Harryhausen created a stop-motion animation technique called Dynamation, which involved photographing miniatures of dinosaurs or mythic creatures against a partially masked rear-projection screen. The masked part would be re-exposed to insert portions of live footage, integrating the models in with live-action. Harryhausen’s innovations led the way for special effects of films like Star Wars and Jurassic Park.

Early 20th Century: Air And Space

Postcard On the first Lunar cosmodrome, Andrey Sokolov and Aleksey Leonov. 1968, Moscow Design Museum.

In the early- to mid-20th century, science fiction shifted from other worlds hidden on Earth to dreams of space, leading up to the Space Race in the 1950s and ’60s. These fantasies weren’t unique to authors or filmmakers in the U.S.—the U.S.S.R. also produced fantasy literature about space. A set of postcards the Barbican got on loan from the Moscow Design Museum illustrate how Russia’s sci-fi imagined other planets. One is labeled, “An electronic brain of a distant world,” and another, shown above, sketches out an idea of how a space station on the moon would look.

How it influenced design: The Space Race had captured America’s imagination, and advertisers jumped to incorporate the national fascination with space into their marketing. As corporate graphic design hit its heyday with Mad Men-era advertising, visions of space expanded from a niche literature and film genre to reach a mainstream audience of buyers. For instance, Shell capitalized on fantasies of reaching the moon right as that fantasy was becoming a reality. In one ad, the company announced it was funding the first satellite, with copy that read “How to launch a new moon.” Meanwhile, Seagram’s launched a space-themed ad campaign with the slogan “Men Who Plan Beyond Tomorrow!” And in the architecture world, visions of life on other planets produced space age buildings that played on radical shapes and structures.

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’60s and ’70s: Brave New Worlds

Film Still from Star Trek (1979). [Photo: courtesy of Paramount Pictures]
In the ’60s and ’70s, science fiction continued its space obsession, expanding it to TV and movie franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars. Toward the late 20th century, sci-fi also started to return home, envisioning future scenarios on Earth that weren’t always as optimistic as the lost worlds of late 19th-century literature. Novels like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and movie series like Mad Max took anxieties about civil rights, the environment, the oil crisis to the extreme. In film, special effects became a way to make these apocalyptic scenarios ever-more realistic. Fantastical set design, props, and high-concept production took science fiction from the fringes into the massively popular franchises we have today.

How it influenced design: The Swiss surrealist painter H. R. Giger is one of the most famous sci-fi production artists to come out of this time period. Known for creating the nightmare creatures featured in Alien and Species, Giger also designed the Harkonnen Capo Chair for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s never-realized film adaptation of the 1965 novel Dune.

The chair, made of black fiberglass and rendered in the shape of a human skeleton, is an example of sci-fi production as high art, says Gyger. “The props, the concept art, sometimes the costumes—these create a visual atmosphere of the film,” he says. “They create a vision of an alien landscape or future world or an apocalyptic history. In that sense, they’re interesting as design pieces.”

The Present: Beyond Geography

Film Still, Ex Machina (2015).

Today’s science fiction landscape, says Gyger, is dominated by narratives that stretch beyond merely physical geographical locations. Instead, they explore the self—consciousness and existence—and the anxieties produced by technological advancements like cyborgs, clones, and robots.

How it’s influencing design: One example of this new era of speculative fiction is Terrance Broad’s reconstruction of Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner–using neural networks. Broad, an artist and computer scientist, trained a neural network to generate each frame of the film. The result is a dream-y version of Blade Runner that looks like it was filmed underwater. It uses machine learning, one of the most exciting technologies and biggest sources of anxiety about the future today, to reimagine a dystopia from the past.

As our modes of production change, so too do the aesthetics of science fiction—our visions of the future are colored by the resources of the present.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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