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Design Review

Back to the future with Norman Bel Geddes

Norman Bel Geddes’s “Airliner No. 4” (circa 1929-32).

edith lutyens and norman bel geddes foundation/harry ransom center

Norman Bel Geddes’s “Airliner No. 4” (circa 1929-32).

NEW YORK — Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) was one of those only-in-America figures, part grandiose visionary, part inspired tinkerer, part exalted entrepreneur, and all self-creation — right down to designing his own name. The Futurama exhibit Bel Geddes created for General Motors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair attracted 5 million visitors, and as they left the building they were handed a button that said “I Have Seen the Future.” Boast and slogan rolled into one, those words were also advertising for Bel Geddes. Seeing the future, and remaking the present in its image, was what he did.

“Norman Bel Geddes: I Have Seen the Future” runs at the Museum of the City of New York through Feb. 10. It richly chronicles not just a remarkable life but also a remarkable era. That era, the years between the two world wars, had a defining look. It was functional, gleaming, streamlined. Or “dreamlined”: “Dreamlining Tomorrow” was the headline on an article Bel Geddes once wrote. Had he been present at the Creation, you can be sure that Bel Geddes would have spent the Eighth Day streamlining the Maker’s handiwork.

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Those years had that remarkable look in no small part because they were a golden age of industrial design. The concept of industrial designer was as new as the products (radios, vacuum cleaners, diesel locomotives, airliners, refrigerators) that had designs being created for them by such men as Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Walter Teague, Donald Deskey, Russel Wright, Henry Dreyfuss, and Eliot Noyes. Perhaps Loewy was chief among them. Yet it says a great deal about Bel Geddes’s stature that Wright, Dreyfuss, and Noyes all worked in his office before striking out on their own. He was that influential.

Norman Geddes was born in a small town near Toledo, Ohio. As a young man in Los Angeles, he married Belle Schneider — and, in matrimonial tribute, changed his name to Norman-Bel Geddes. He dropped the hyphen when they divorced. One difference between art and design is that designers have to consider practicalities and changing circumstances, as artists do not.

Bel Geddes became a leading theatrical designer, first in Los Angeles, then in New York. There are more than 200 items in the exhibition, and some of the most striking are his stage sketches. Bel Geddes was a master of the Expressionist use of space and light. One could argue that upon opening his design firm he simply transferred the skills he’d been using to a different stage: The world became the set he worked on. Like any great showman, Bel Geddes was always aware of the need to hold his audience. It’s just that in his case the intended audience was much of the population of the United States.

In Bel Geddes’s designs, theatricality meets functionality — and ambition. The show gives a good sense of his phenomenal range. There are small-scale designs, from jewelry to a cocktail set (the shaker looks like an Art Deco skyscraper in miniature; it’s fabulous). His Patriot Radio, from 1940, combines geometric simplicity (it’s all right angles and circles) with turn-up-the-dial color (a vibrant orange-red, set off by white stripes). There are large-scale designs. Bel Geddes redid the offices of J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency — he had an ad man’s alertness to both shaping and responding to mass appeal. A streamlined ocean liner, from 1932, looks like a torpedo with windows. A sketch for an airliner, from around the same period, has 10 propellers and bears a family resemblance to a Transformer robot. He proposed building automated highways (shades of Google’s driverless cars). Magic Motorways, Bel Geddes called them, and he consulted with Franklin D. Roosevelt on a future national road system.

Norman Bel Geddes (pointing) during construction of the set for the 1937 stage production “The Eternal Road.”

Norman Bel Geddes (pointing) during construction of the set for the 1937 stage production “The Eternal Road.”

Although none of those last three designs was ever executed, Bel Geddes’s impact was considerable. A group of business executives sit around a conference table in a 1932 New Yorker cartoon. “Gentlemen, I am convinced that our next new biscuit should be styled by Norman Bel Geddes.” Nothing confers immortality quite like a punch line.

Fortune magazine derided Bel Geddes as “a bomb thrower” whose ideas “cost American businessmen billions of dollars.” General Motors certainly had no complaints about the phenomenal success of Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit. Yet it’s plain how his influence began to wane as his proposals grew ever more elaborate. A floating airport off lower Manhattan? A replacement for Ebbets Field, in Brooklyn, with a retractable roof? They were ahead of their time.

There’s something almost Wagnerian in Bel Geddes’s reach. Richard Wagner described his operas as Gesamtkunstwerken: complete artworks. It’s not too much to say that what Bel Geddes wanted to make into a complete artwork was the entire world. He liked to say that “unity of effect” was what he strove for. You can see that most clearly in the City of Tomorrow he designed for Shell Oil, in the ’30s. This is urbanism on an imperial scale: thrilling to see, ghastly to contemplate. It’s like Le Corbusier, Albert Speer, and Flash Gordon singing three-part harmony. Given funding, who can doubt that Bel Geddes would have moved beyond cities to tackle entire regions, countries, continents. A Continent of Tomorrow, like that City of Tomorrow, would have been a great place to look at, but you wouldn’t want to live there. That wasn’t Bel Geddes’s personal concern, though, since where he lived was always someplace else, the future.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.
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