Untitled (Tin Planet, Mechanical Planet).

The Birth of the Death Star

The artist behind some of Star Wars’ most iconic imagery claimed he wasn’t even a sci-fi fan. But his work shaped how we’d envision space travel forever after.

Sitting in his modest home studio in the small, lakeside town of Excelsior, Minnesota, freelance illustrator John Berkey created the Death Star—or, at least, the painting that inspired it.

Born in North Dakota in 1932, Berkey was a prolific artist who is now best remembered for his impressionistic depictions of spacecraft in the distant cosmos; filmmaker George Lucas has cited his work as inspiration for the look of Star Wars, which came out in 1977. But Berkey had been exploring space-related themes since the 1960s—even picking up commissions from NASA, for whom he painted astronauts and other scenes. Although Berkey claimed he wasn’t even a fan of sci-fi (“It isn’t literature,” he told one reporter), his paintings of space stations and warships hovering in deep space appeared on the covers of books by iconic authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

When Lucas first spotted Berkey’s work on one such cover in the mid-1970s, it seemed like a perfect visualization of the universe he imagined for his new project—so much so that when the young filmmaker started pitching the first Star Wars to film studios, he used Berkey’s work to illustrate his ideas.

Eventually, Lucas hired Berkey to produce some sketches for the first installment of the film series, including the Death Star, as well as cover art for its novelizations. And Berkey might’ve done even more work for the burgeoning franchise if he hadn’t been caught up in a legal dispute between 20th Century Fox, which distributed Star Wars, and Universal Studios, which followed with the original 1978 TV version of Battlestar Galactica. Berkey had actually worked on both projects, and when Fox sued Universal for copyright infringement and plagiarism, their fight ended up costing him both clients. But the artist had already made his mark: it’s no coincidence that the final scenes in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, in which rebel X-Wing Fighters hurtle toward the Death Star, look a lot like his imaginings, and his original paintings now go for thousands of dollars online. (Berkey also kept at it—the images featured here were created between the early 1970s and the 1990s.)

We will never be able to observe the edges of the universe. But John Berkey—a man who, a few years before his death in 2008, told the Minnesota Star Tribune that he had never watched any of the Star Wars movies—helped us imagine otherwise.

Pre-flight. All images courtesy of John Berkey Art, Ltd.
Oval Ship With Red.
End of the Run.
Canyon Scan.
Space Study 677.
Feather Ship.
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Looking for Survivors.
Concept paintings and promotional art for Star Wars, released in 1977.
Of Moon Stars.
Holocaust in the Sky (preliminary study).
Two Astronauts.
Maintenance Dock.
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