A car from Normal Bel Geddes’ “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair and the designer exiting a Chrysler Airflow car.
The interdiscliplinary types of today have nothing on Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958), who designed everything from stage sets and costumes to buildings and streamlined “motor cars” that resembled elongated teardrops with wheels (tail fins optional). The life and career of the self-taught polymath, who straddled the line between visionary and pragmatist, is the subject of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, published by Abrams in conjunction with a major exhibition now on view at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It will travel to the Museum of the City of New York early next year. We asked design historian Russell Flinchum, author of Henry Dreyfuss, Industrial Designer: The Man in the Brown Suit, to give us his take on the new Bel Geddes bible in advance of the show’s arrival in Gotham.
New Yorkers have an exceptional chance to immerse themselves in modernity’s past at the Museum of the City of New York, which last week opened “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s,” an exhibition that originated at the National Building Museum in 2011. Following relatively hot on its heels will be “Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” from which most of the latter show’s contents have been gleaned. Moving from the earlier exhibition’s overview to the first in-depth look at Geddes should prove instructive, to put it mildly. No single exhibit from the fairs of the ‘30s is better known or more celebrated than Geddes’s “Futurama,” properly the “Highways and Horizons” exhibit for General Motors at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. We will finally have a chance to understand exactly what Geddes achieved, and why he merits such curatorial scrutiny.
Donald Albrecht, curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, has edited an impressive catalogue that covers Geddes’s output in 17 chapters that carry us from theatrical design through furniture, housing, and graphic design and everywhere in between (perhaps most notably in his three-dimensional designs for Life magazine illustrating the battlefronts of World War II, which merited an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). The authors of these individual chapters range from UT professor Jeffrey Meikle, whose Twentieth Century Limited of 1977 did more than any single book to focus academic interest on American industrial design of the 1930s, to some of his former students and even current doctoral candidates at Austin.
Some chapters are invaluable; all are useful and finally put what is known about Geddes in one place and expand our knowledge of this seminal figure and his practice immensely. The illustrations alone justify the purchase price. While I remain reluctant to label Geddes the designer of America (his contemporary Walter Dorwin Teague was certainly no less important or productive in shaping an American modernism), this is an outstanding achievement and merits examination by anyone who claims an interest in 20th century design in the United States.
(Photos at top left by Pete Smith. Images courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation / Harry Ransom Center)