Norman Bel Geddes 1893-1958
Born Norman Melancton Geddes in Adrian, MI, he studied briefly at Cleveland Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He began work as an advertising draftsman in Chicago and Detroit in 1913. After his 1916 marriage to writer Helen Belle Sneider of Toledo, they changed their surnames to Bel-Geddes. He developed a very successful career in theatrical set design in New York and in 1925 created film sets for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood.
He began work as an industrial designer in 1927 at the suggestion of Ray Graham of Graham-Paige Motors Company. Bel Geddes designed five brass concept models for him, each representing progressive future car designs for 1928 through 1932, though none were built.
In 1928 the Simmons Company commissioned him to design metal bedroom furniture that went to market in 1932. In 1931 a model of his "House of Tomorrow" was published in Ladies Home Journal and became a major impetus for architectural "streamlining."
Bel Geddes continued to design and patent not only incredibly innovative futuristic streamlined cars, trains, ocean liners and planes, but practical consumer products as well. Many of these were published in his 1932 book, "Horizons," dramatically illustrated by his employee, Stowe Myers.
The book enhanced his reputation as a flamboyant "P.T. Barnum" of industrial design. Indeed, his work inspired many actual transportation wonders such as Union Pacific's M-10,000 and the M-130 Pan American China Clippers (both 1934). Bel Geddes designed the interiors of the Clippers.
His book included his design of the Oriole stove for the Standard Gas Equipment Company of Baltimore that debuted in 1936 and set the architectural typeform for all future cook stoves.
In 1937 he designed a model City of Tomorrow with expressways featured in an advertisement for Shell Oil Company on assignment by the J. Walter Thompson Agency. This concept was expanded to become the "Futurama" exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, probably the most popular exhibit there. It showed a panorama of superhighways and teardrop-shaped cars of the future year 1960. Using these materials, he published a book, "Magic Motorways," in 1940, which became an inspiration for post-war freeway and interstate highway systems.
In 1944, Bel Geddes was one of the 15 founders of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), a forerunner of IDSA. In 1945 he prepared a giant 59-foot model of "Toledo Tomorrow," proposing a future development of the city that was never implemented.
In 1946, he designed a new grille for the post-war Nash automobile. He was also commissioned to design a typewriter for IBM, but his office soon closed due to financial mismanagement. One of his designers, Elliot Noyes, completed the project for IBM, which became IBM's Model A electric typewriter, introduced in 1948.
In 1960, two years after death, his autobiography, "Miracle in the Evening," was published. By this time, his daughter Barbara Bel Geddes had become a well-known Broadway and movie actress
100 Years of Design--A Chronology 1895-1995, by Carroll Gantz
The American theatrical and industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes was the first person to seriously apply the concepts of aerodynamics and streamlining to industrial design.
In 1927, Bel Geddes left theatrical design, and began designing cars, ships, factories and railways. He rapidly created streamlined forms for objects ranging from gas-ranges to trains, in addition to a revolving restaurant and, in 1929, a 9-deck amphibian airliner that incorporated areas for deck-games, an orchestra, a fully equipped gymnasium and a solarium -- an airborne Titanic!
Bel Geddes designed the famous General Motors Pavilion for the1939 New York World’s Fair, which include the Highway and Horizons exhibit, more commonly known as the "Futurama".
Some of Bel Geddes' automobile designs bear a remarkable similarity to Fuller's Dymaxion, at least superficially (they all had four wheels), including Motor Car no. 8, 1931, Motor Coach no. 2 (1931), and the remarkable 1934 patent model pictured below.
Like Fuller's later Dymaxion transport, Car no. 8 had the engine in the rear. It also held a large number of passengers (eight), and had unprecedented visibility. Bel Geddes' Car no. 8 also had a vertical fin, like Dymaxion car no. 3, all of this two years before production of the Dymaxion began in Bridgeport, Connecticut. For the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago, Bel Geddes proposed an aquarium restaurant under a waterfall and a three-level revolving aerial restaurant that could seat twelve hundred diners, on top of a 278 foot stem. Neither of these projects was realized due to a shortage of funding.
Where Fuller talked about "Nature's coordinate system", Bel Geddes expounded a philosophy of "essential forms" evolved from their systems of use, in his seminal book Horizons, published in 1932. He helped to establish a new professional niche -- that of "industrial designer", arguing for a closer relationship between engineer in design procedures.
Bel Geddes last known car design was for a flying car with a rear-mounted propeller, perhaps inspired by Fuller's early plans for the Dymaxion.
Norman Bel Geddes also crossed fields to play a role in automobile design during the 1930s. Following the publication of his book, Horizons, Geddes was hired to help design the body of the Chrysler Airflow (a 1934 Airflow is included in our exhibition), which he declared to be "the first sincere and authentic streamlined car," but the car was a commercial failure. The blunder of the Airflow, brought about by an inability to meet production demands and defects in quality control, demonstrates the minimal influence outside designers have had on automotive design. Outsiders are typically brought in to perform a "cosmetic" job rather than solve fundamental engineering problems.
A theatre designer who set up his own industrial design studio in 1927. He did the most to popularise streamlining by publishing Horizons (1932) and influenced the development of the American freeway system with Magic Motorways (1940). His ideas tended to be extremely futuristic and consequently very few ever went into production. His designs for the 'Super Airliner No. 4' of 1929, for a range of motor coaches and for ocean liners show his idealism and his flagrant disregard for public opinion and the limitations of current technology. These proposed designs were so large and so fast that they only became feasible forty years after their design. His supporters saw him as a genius, but his critics saw him as a waster of the industry's money. His pavilion at the New York World Fair in 1939 for General Motors is hailed as his best work, but his own financial mismanagement and a lack of commissions caused his consultancy to fold after the Second World War.
Norman Bel Geddes was a Broadway stage designer turned industrial designer. During much of his life, his ideas stretched beyond the vision of most people. He encountered a lot of apprehension toward his innovative ideas, many of which never left the drawing board. Yet, Geddes' notions of "Streamlining" are important to understanding public life. Steven Heller and Louise Fili (1995) write, "[Streamlining] was at once the engine of progress and a metaphor for the fast tempo of daily life" (p. 80). To Geddes, streamlining illustrated courage:
We are too much inclined to believe, because things have long been done a certain way, that that is the best way to do them. Following old grooves of thought is one method of playing safe. But it deprives one of initiative and takes too long. It sacrifices the value of the element of surprise. At times, the only thing to do is to cut loose and do the unexpected! It takes more even than imagination to be progressive. It takes vision and courage Geddes deserves our attention because so many of his visions remain a part of our collective consciousness in the form of "semiotic phantoms" that endure the many changes that have taken place sense his age.
Norman Bel Geddes was born in Adrian, Michigan, in 1893 to a wealthy family. But, by the time he was seven, his father lost everything in the stock market and drank himself to death a few years later. Norman, his mom, and younger brother lived in poverty for the rest of his childhood. But his mother was a cultured woman and she shared her interest in the theatre and opera with her sons. Norman loved to draw and paint and his mother encouraged him (Russell, 1974, p. 8). During this time, they moved a lot. When Norman was in the ninth grade, he was expelled from school. A cartoonist who'd heard about him helped him get into the Cleveland Institute of Art. Norman also attended the Chicago Art Institute for a short time, but school really wasn't his thing. His strong interest in stage and opera grew and soon he found his niche (Russell, 1974, p.10).
Geddes' most notable contribution to stage design was in lighting. Back then, the sole purpose of lighting was visibility. Geddes envisioned placing and funneling lights from different parts of the stage to create moods and for spotlighting. But, his ideas were rejected or ignored (Russell, 1974, p. 15). It took several years for him to display his ideas but when he did, they were met with praise. Over 200 theatrical productions were credited to him throughout his lifetime (Garraty and Carnes, 1999, p. 823). One of Geddes' most successful Broadway stage designs was in the production of "The Miracle." For this play, he took New York's Century Theatre and gutted it, transforming the theatre into a cathedral. He removed all the seats and brought in pews. Bel Geddes wanted the audience to feel as if they were a part of the performance.
In 1926 he began an industrial design company, using the concept that "form follows function." He wanted to take everyday devices and make them eye-appealing by "streamlining" them - taking geometric forms and smoothing them out, using lots of glass and chrome. Another aspect of streamlining was the dream of perfect aerodynamics. Borrowing the shape of fish, the teardrop car was developed, with the front end rounded off.
While Geddes rose in prominence, our country had just been through the Depression and the public had a very unfavorable view of the business community. It was seen as irresponsible, irrational, wasteful, and inefficient. The 1939 New York World's Fair was the perfect opportunity for large corporations to sell a new image. Fair planners hired industrial designers, engineers, and technicians to represent them as rational, employing intelligent planning to improve lives through technology (Maffei, 1997). Invited to help design key Fair exhibits, Geddes' approached the General Motors exhibit, "Futurama," as if he were a Machiavellian "armed prophet" - he built a model of the country starting from scratch, in the same way he approached his theater work. This kind of comprehensive control over a singular vision of public life was bold - and inspiring to a range of planners, from urban design experts to entertainment luminaries like Walt Disney who also tried his hand at city planning.
The "Futurama" exhibit in the 1939 World's Fair demonstrates the application of Geddes' love of streamlining as a vision of public life. Visitors were promised that [in the world of tomorrow] "abundant sunshine, fresh air, fine green parkways" would blend together seamlessly with dazzling skyscrapers and seven-lane highways (Lefcowitz, 1999, online). Despite the gathering gloom of war, economic struggle, and a host of other fears, Futurama offered an optimistic promise of better times. This presentation proved to be the most popular exhibit at the fair. When the ride was over, each spectator received a pin that boasted, "I have seen the future," and most of them were convinced they had. President Roosevelt later enlisted Geddes' help with the National Motorway Planning Authority, which greatly influenced the growth of suburbs and our present interstate highway system (Russell, 1974, p. 33).
Bel Geddes had one other exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. It was called the "Crystal Gazing Palace" and, along with several others, was an "adult only" site. In it, a scantily-clad dancer performed on a stage with a multitude of mirrors. The reflected images created the illusion that the audience was being entertained by a whole chorus of dancers (Harrison, 1980, p.110). While the Fair closed in 1940, we continue to see Geddes' reflection on our America's dreams of the future. Geddes continued designing, planning, and writing until his death in 1958. A man of vision and courage, his influence, whether in the theater, on the roadways, or in semiotic phantoms, Geddes' influence on public life remains with us even today.
For more information please read:
Donald J. Bush - The Streamlined Decade
S. Heller & L. Fili - Sreamline
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