Norman Bel Geddes is one of those figures whose talent is almost frustrating, so diverse were his skills and so naturally they seemed to come to him. A self-trained polymath, Geddes began his career by revolutionizing American theater in the 1920s, but the ensuing decades saw him dabble in an astonishing variety of disciplines. Here’s one example of that staggering scope: In the 1930s, the Ohio-based Toledo Scale Company commissioned Geddes to redesign its signature product, a countertop scale. While he was at it, the company asked him to conceive a new factory in which to manufacture it. Years later, Toledo officials tapped Geddes to plan the restructuring of the entire city itself.
Alas, none of these three designs ever came to fruition, and in many respects, Geddes’s career was defined by a vision that was easier to appreciate than it was to realize. But as evidenced by a new book, as well as an extensive exhibition that just wrapped up at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, Geddes’s influence can be seen all around us today.
As diverse as was Geddes’s body of work, much of it can be seen as the product of a certain optimism about the future and a curiosity to tease out all of its potential. As Donald Albrecht, the editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, writes in the book’s introduction, Geddes was "a strong believer in . . . the idea that art as well as architecture and design could make people’s lives psychologically and emotionally richer."
The first medium Geddes upturned was theater. Working on nearly a hundred Broadway shows and operas throughout the 1920s, the designer introduced an entirely new look to the American stage, introducing "broad strokes of color, dramatic lighting, simplified detail, and exaggerated and abstracted settings and costumes," Albrecht explains, to suit a new class of playwrights who were "exploring deeper psychological depth in their work."
Geddes not only brought a new look to the shows he worked on but often times re-imagined the theater experience altogether. For his production of The Miracle, in 1924, Geddes’s transformation of New York’s Century Theater into a convincing Gothic cathedral went beyond the stage, including light filtered through stained glass, the addition of wooden pews instead of seats for audience members, and incense burned to scent the air. His innovations could be found behind the scenes, too: that production saw the debut of a unified switchboard, operated by a single technician, for controlling the direction and color of the show’s lights.
But the theater was only a single hermetic space, and Geddes’s thirst to enrich lives eventually led him to greater challenges. In 1932, during the depths of the Great Depression, Geddes published Horizons, a manifesto of sorts, outlining his wild visions for streamlined systems of transportation, including flying cruise liners and floating airports. But the text treated those outlandish ideas as very real possibilities, with carefully rendered plans and cutaways, lending a certain persuasiveness to Geddes’s vision. The book, Albrecht explains, became "the prow of his ship as a futurist."
The culmination of Geddes’s work in this regard, and in many ways the designer’s career, was the Futurama display he created for General Motors’ exhibition at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, an immersive, ride-through experience that gave visitors a tantalizing glimpse of America circa 1960, complete with skyscrapers made of glass and automobiles traveling on multilevel superhighways. As Albrecht explains in the book’s introduction, "It was Geddes, more than any designer of his era, who created and promoted a dynamic vision of the future with an image that was streamlined, technocratic, and optimistic." But for the public, part of the appeal of Geddes’s work had to do with how he treated the future—not as a vague new era on the horizon but as something that was very real, and very imminent. "It’s not just, 'the future is coming,'" Albrecht explains, "but, 'it’s coming in the next five years.'" Geddes’s sense of immediacy was infectious, and Futurama was a sensation.
During World War II, Geddes revisited an activity that he’d often employed in conceiving his lauded sets and pitching various other projects to clients: the creation of intricate miniature models. Geddes’ elaborate dioramas of the theaters of war, exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and published in Life magazine, gave Americans a unique look at the action transpiring around the world. But the photographs of these models constitute an even more enduring part of Geddes’ legacy. His painstakingly realistic pictures of those miniatures, complete with cotton-ball plumes of smoke, comprised some of the early examples of model photography as we know it today.
Geddes’ fortunes waned after the war, even as the rest of the country enjoyed a period of prosperity and innovation that he had envisaged in much of his earlier work. And while the designer had been a tireless self-promoter throughout his career, he didn’t seem as concerned, in later years, with cementing his legacy. As Albrecht points out, the autobiography Geddes published shortly before his death in 1958 covers only his early work in theater, ignoring the Futurama exhibition, his pioneering work in industrial design, and his other influential projects. The firm Geddes had founded, which at times strained to bring its visionary leader back down to Earth, dissolved before Geddes was able to establish a successor.
Still, the new exhibition and book convincingly make the case that Geddes deserves our attention today. He was far from the only one to recognize how the face of America would be reshaped by the automobile in coming decades, but he was right there espousing that potential from the start. And while his bold designs for things like rotating, sky-borne restaurants and sports stadiums with retractable roofs might have gone unrealized by his clients at the time, history has shown that Geddes’ glittering brand of futurism wasn’t entirely quixotic.
The exhibition I Have Seen the Future recently wrapped up at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, though it will move to the Museum of the City of New York in coming months. You can find the book, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, over at Amazon.
[Images and captions courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation / Harry Ransom Center, unless otherwise stated]