September 1, 2012
I Have Seen the Future
A new book on Norman Bel Geddes takes a fresh look at the utopian dreamer.
Norman Bel Geddes helped shape the twentieth century. Although he was originally a stage designer and had little formal training, his work grew to encompass industrial design, architecture, and urban planning, gaining him wide renown as a popular designer.
Bel Geddes combined an almost quixotic belief in the future with a theatrical flair, creating everything from objects to the factories that made those objects. He famously streamlined trains, planes, and automobiles. He appeared on the cover of magazines. His Futurama exhibition inside the GM pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair served as an unofficial blueprint for the interstate highway system. “The positive vision of the future that emerged in the twentieth century is a Bel Geddes creation,” says Donald Albrecht, who curated I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, the current exhibition at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, which holds the Bel Geddes archives. “He was so visionary but he’s totally forgotten. After the war, a lot of designers said, ‘We have a chance to influence the American home. Tone down Bel Geddes.’ He was seen as too theatrical.”
Both the exhibition and Albrecht’s forthcoming book, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams), explore the designer’s varied career in sections: the initial phase of theater design (“Setting the Stage”); his move into architecture and product design (“Industrious Design”); his visions of a reshaped American landscape, including Futurama (“A Bigger World”); and the final stage, in which he immersed himself in all areas of design and embraced theater once again (“Total Living”). “We take Bel Geddes’s impact on the things we use today for granted,” Albrecht says. “His ideas were utopian, technological, and highly consumerist. They induced you to buy not just things, but his visions of things—to buy him.”