“I saw Star Wars at age six and it pretty much entirely informed my design brain,” says Shuster, who grew up in Detroit immersed in car culture and dreaming of space travel. “I thought: That’s it, nothing else matters (apart from Blade Runner!) – nothing else really mattered to me.”
An introverted kid whose modus operandi was “... hanging out alone expanding the Star Wars universe on paper,” Shuster’s fixation with designing all forms of mechanised travel was underpinned with structural input from his dad, a designer at General Motors.
The constant extracurricular vehicular experimentation at the Shuster household, combined with some of his dad’s tangential projects like the GM motor home program in the mid-70s, exposed Shuster to a broad range of rolling design work and engendered a love of the hybrid in design – an aesthetic at once functional and accumulative.
“Growing up in a manufacturing society such as Detroit, planted the seeds of purpose in design,” says Shuster, who graduated from the College of Creative Studies in Detroit in 1993 with his love of sci-fi tempered by an urge to create real working machines.
“The act of skinning over a machine with yet another variation on the theme had its day decades before. Kids will render the obligatory ship bristling with hardware and it’s cool and all, just lacking in something rooting it to that part of the brain that makes me care.”
That contrast was highlighted when Shuster landed the design gig ‘kit-bashing’ and sketching in competition with the London art department to create the pod racers for George Lucas in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. While the London designers were creating “completely far out” versions of birds, flying doughnuts and other random forms, Shuster describes his designs as “decidedly automotive” and function-based.
When Lucas was briefing the designers for Anakin Skywalker’s pod racer, he called for a re-imagining of the Ben Hur chariot scene with a sci-fi chariot referencing the Maserati Birdcage Type 60. Hence, Shuster successfully designed and detailed the ‘reins’ connecting the floating chariot to the ‘Repulsor Lift’ air-driven engine.
Lucas never clarified how his technology worked and Shuster delighted in constructing as much back-story as time would allow. Although, as Shuster tells it, any particular attention to technical detail tended to be lost in the making at Lucasfilm.
“Budget trumped design in most cases: found objects were substitutes for actual model building (and) designed details usually got the boot for cheaper proxies,” explains Shuster. “There was the infamous women’s shaver-turned-Jedi communications device. Just awful.” (For Phantom Menace viewers, a quick look at the resin imprint of a lady’s Gillette Sensor razor handle in the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi will confirm both parts of this statement.)
From this experience, Shuster developed a wry personal take on the evolution of the Star Wars franchise. “The original Star Wars changed my life,” he says, “and then Episode 1 changed it back.”
Shuster designs by hand, and finds inspiration in spare-parts warehouses where, he says, “the material provides a vocabulary”. He is a veracious sketcher, documenting – in strong black marker – with equal enthusiasm architectural landscapes, mechanical details and vehicles.
Repurposing old industrial parts into sculpture and furniture and ‘kit-bashing’ are also passions. He creates elegant forms and one-off furniture pieces containing an uncommonly complex visual texture.
“Building with my hands is as important as drawing in 2D,” he says. “The manipulation of material informs my design brain.”
From Lucasfilm, Shuster moved to Pixar, where his love of sci-fi mechanics and his junkyard aesthetic found him a hardware niche in a company where the artistic crew had little interest (then) in robots.
Having anthropomorphised the vehicles for Cars, Shuster was handed his dream project, the design of a ‘Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-class’, better known as Wall·E, a loveable robot who would star in his own apocalyptic animation.
“For Wall·E I was given the grocery list of the binocular eyes, a metamorphosing cube body and the appeal of a garbage compactor,” he says, with the stipulation that the resultant robot had to physically work, function as designed and be child-like.
Shuster’s team inspected NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers, visited the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and put a bomb disposal robot through its paces, all in the name of research. In order to understand how to convey soundless emotion the team watched silent movies and then manipulated Wall·E’s myopic binocular eyes, using the inner workings of the lenses and binoculars to convey subtle emotions.
The result is an endearing mash-up of a Tonka toy, a Furby and E.T. that epitomises Shuster’s days spent, as he puts it, in “scrap yards looking for discarded manufactured material gold”.
Having recently finished animating more vehicles for Cars 2, Shuster has continued to dabble in covetable pop-design projects, one of the latest being for MAD magazine. Shuster is a long-time MAD fan and has a particular affinity with the MAD aesthetic.
“I coveted MAD magazine. I loved the detail and extra-tiny comics shoehorned into the margins – it was value-packed. And, of course, how it reduced everything to a hilarious mess.”
So what better commission than to design sculptures for the characters of black Spy and white Spy for the iconic comic strip Spy vs. Spy for MAD magazine’s 20th anniversary? Looking like the humanoid equivalent of a spaceship, each spy is ‘kit-bashed’ from 12 or more plastic sets and sums up the weapon-wielding gadget-laden characters perfectly.
When it comes to pop-culture design, Shuster has an impressive résumé – loveable animated talking cars, epic sci-fi movie vehicles, the world’s most loveable robot.
So what does Shuster wish he had designed? He has a few items on his list: the Millennium Falcon, Hans Solo’s spacecraft in Star Wars; perhaps Syd Mead’s futuristic city from Blade Runner or even just the flying ‘spinner’ cars; or, reverting to those GM motor home days, one of Raymond Loewy’s streamlined Art Deco locomotives – all incredible, original and revolutionary concepts, executed with passion and astonishingly intricate detail. Something Shuster himself is becoming well-known for.