Norman Bel Geddes, a self-trained polymath turned architect, industrial designer and futurist is the subject of the Harry Ransom Center’s newest exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.”
The exhibition opened this week and runs through Jan 6. Though students of design have no doubt already heard the name Bel Geddes, any student who has ever sat on a plane, driven on a highway or visited Disneyland’s “Tomorrowland” has been indirectly affected by his work. And should the man’s relevance fail to entice, take note: the papers of Bel Geddes are varied, entertaining and visually alluring to people of all disciplines.
The exhibition divides itself into five sections, tracing Bel Geddes’ evolution from a set builder to an industrial designer to an architect and respected futurist. Along the way, visitors encounter not only pages from his books but striking watercolors, miniature models and compelling articles all created by Bel Geddes.
Donald Albrecht, the guest curator of the exhibition, believes that the exhibition “demonstrates the incredible range of Bel Geddes’ work.” According to Albrecht, he was both a “visionary and a marketer and an advertiser and a shameless self-promoter.” Albrecht also notes that, though Bel Geddes has been “written about in [every] book on industrial design, this is the first time a spotlight has really been put on him.”
Bel Geddes took a non-traditional path to the top of the design world, and the exhibition pays due to each of the twists in his career. He began his journey building extraordinarily beautiful and complex sets for theaters from New York City to Hollywood. From there, he moved through the realms of industrial design, architecture and finally, city planning. As Albrecht puts it, Bel Geddes “designed the theater set, he designed the theater, he designed the city in which the theater would sit … It’s a complete view of the future of America.”
Bel Geddes had his most famous achievement in the “Futurama” exhibition at the 1939-1940 World’s Fair that envisioned a “city of tomorrow” with elevated sidewalks and inner-city highways that would banish stop signs and spur efficiency. He designed this utopian city around the automobile; “Futurama” was, at its core, an advertisement for the exhibition’s sponsor, General Motors.
Helen Baer, curator of “I Have Seen the Future,” points out that in the 1939-1940 World’s Fair exhibition, Bel Geddes had tremendous success “taking a small idea about selling cars and turning it into a large-scale idea.” Of course, as she puts it, “It is one thing to have a vision of a car-centric society and quite another thing to actually live in one.” While Bel Geddes’ city of tomorrow neglected to consider the environmental impact of automobiles, Baer said it created “the Bel Geddes vision of the future that you found in mid-20th century America; the vision of the future that Disneyland shows at Tomorrowland.”
Ultimately, acceptance of Bel Geddes’ utopian vision was ephemeral, with World War II toppling his depression-era vision. But Bel Geddes’ impact permeates American memory of the 1930s and 1940s — in many ways making him the silent voice behind an era. His obsession with streamlined design and aerodynamic properties influenced everything from seltzer bottles to bullet-shaped trains.
The Ransom Center will hold a “retrofuturistic celebration” Friday at 7 P.M. Tickets will be sold for $20 at the door.
Printed on Thursday, September 13, 2012 as: Futurist design exhibit opens at Ransom Center