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Curator of Norman Bel Geddes exhibition discusses influence of the industrial designer

 

Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.

The exhibition Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which was on view at the Ransom Center in fall 2012, opens at the Museum of the City of New York today. To celebrate this traveling exhibition, the Ransom Center is giving away a free “I Have Seen the Future” totebag to all Ransom Center visitors, while supplies last. The galleries are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today.

Conservators repair Bel Geddes poster for 1926 Macy’s parade

Norman Bel Geddes. Punch and Judy, clowns, airplane float for a Macy’s parade, October 12, 1926. 41 x 91 ½ inches. Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper.
Norman Bel Geddes. Punch and Judy, clowns, airplane float for a Macy’s parade, October 12, 1926. 41 x 91 ½ inches. Pencil, ink, gouache, and watercolor on paper.

For Macy’s third annual parade in 1926, Norman Bel Geddes produced seven posters that now reside in the Ransom Center’s archive. Learn about the efforts of Ransom Center conservators to repair and frame one of the posters for the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America. The project was funded by a Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant from The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes’s 1931 film of "Hamlet" production

By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.

Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.

Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”

Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.

Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.

Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.

Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Learn more about Bel Geddes in the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on display through today.

Three degrees of separation: Industrial designers find inspiration with Norman Bel Geddes

A group of Dell employees visit the exhibition "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
A group of Dell employees visit the exhibition "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.

Scott Lauffer, an Industrial Design Director at Dell’s Enterprise Product Group, recently visited the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America with a group of colleagues, primarily industrial designers and engineers. The group takes occasional offsite visits to find inspiration. This is the third visit the group made to the Ransom Center over the past few years. Lauffer shares his observations from the visit.

As designers I think we all drew inspiration from the versatility that Norman Bel Geddes displayed not only in the types of work that he consulted on, but the salesmanship he exhibited to convince many of his clients to invest in creating better human experiences in a time before it was expected and demanded by consumers. His background in theater probably served him well in being a better storyteller for his vision. His approach for researching and understanding human behavior along with model building and storytelling are all techniques that we draw on heavily as designers today.

It was interesting to see how Bel Geddes not only influenced our group’s profession of industrial design, but also our industry, albeit indirectly. Elliot Noyes, who founded the Industrial Design program for IBM and pioneered the corporate design discipline in 1956, was previously employed by Bel Geddes. We later discovered there were only three degrees of separation for some of us: Bel Geddes to Elliot Noyes to Tom Hardy, with whom some of us previously worked in his capacity as design director at IBM.

The exhibition was crafted to educate a wide audience through thoughtfully selected examples that represent the breadth of Bel Geddes’s work, without overwhelming. The courage Bel Geddes showed in proposing the visionary and using this to stretch the imagination of his clients is inspirational.

Final days to see "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America"

Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.

The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America runs through January 6, 2013, and explores the life and career of American stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958).

The Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and on Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.

Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with extended Thursday hours until 7 p.m. On Saturdays and Sundays the galleries are open from noon to 5 p.m.

Docent-led gallery tours are also available.

More than 300 items in the exhibition reflect the broad range of Bel Geddes’s interests and work and demonstrate how he shaped and continues to influence American culture and lifestyle. A polymath who had little academic or professional training in the areas he mastered, Bel Geddes had the ability to look at trends and the contemporary environment and envision how they could affect and alter the future.

“When you drive on an interstate highway, attend a multimedia Broadway show, dine in a sky-high revolving restaurant or watch a football game in an all-weather stadium, you owe a debt of gratitude to Norman Bel Geddes,” said exhibition organizer Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York.

All but two loaned items in the exhibition come from the Norman Bel Geddes archive at the Ransom Center.

Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.
Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933. Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Photo by Pete Smith.

Curator discusses Norman Bel Geddes’s influence in video

Donald Albrecht, exhibition organizer and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, discusses industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes’s influence on the American landscape. Albrecht—editor of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams)—emphasizes the breadth of the Bel Geddes collection at the Ransom Center, which includes Bel Geddes’s plans and sketches of his futurist visions.

"Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" receives media attention

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America (Abrams) is the first book to explore the entire scope of American designer, urban planner, and futurist Norman Bel Geddes’s life, career, and projects.

Media outlets, including the New York Times Book Review, Fortune, the Telegraph, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Austin Chronicle, Wallpaper and the New York Post, have made note of this publication.

Edited by Donald Albrecht, an independent curator and curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, Norman Bel Geddes Designs America reveals the astonishing breadth of Bel Geddes’s work.

Complementing the book is the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.

Enjoy a preview of Norman Bel Geddes Designs America through Albrecht’s introduction to the volume, which includes images of Bel Geddes’s varied work, from construction of the stage set for The Eternal Road to his design for an all-weather, all-purpose, never-built stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Essays by more than 15 leading scholars explore Bel Geddes’s work in theater, housing, graphic design, and work place design, as well as his famous Futurama installation and his working process. More than 400 illustrations from the Bel Geddes archive at the Ransom Center reveal and showcase Bel Geddes’s extensive interests and talents. Essay contributors include Regina Lee Blaszczyk, Christina Cogdell, Christin Essin, Christopher Innes, Sandy Isenstadt, Christopher Long, Jeffrey L. Meikle, Lawrence Speck, and others.

Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is available for purchase at the Ransom Center’s visitor desk during gallery hours and online. Members receive a discount.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Associate Director for Exhibitions Cathy Henderson leads a tour of "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study senior Cheyenne McClaran, a Supply Chain Management major, photographs the wardrobe tag corresponding to Robert De Niro's coat from the film "Being Flynn." Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Volunteer and recent University of Texas at Austin graduate Stephanie Tiedeken documents reports on fan letters for "Gone With The Wind," such as a letter with casting suggestions to producer David O. Selznick. Photo by Edgar Walters.

In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
"Unassembled model of Bel Geddes's Prefabricated House," ca. 1941—42. Photograph by unidentified photographer. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

By the end of the 1930s, Depression-weary Americans were confronted with a housing shortage and skyrocketing prices. Norman Bel Geddes, perpetually optimistic, viewed the precarious geopolitical climate as a ripe opportunity to reshape domestic architecture. With a housing crisis, economic depression, and looming entrance into a world war, Bel Geddes believed Americans faced a defining moment in which they could forge “new beginnings.”

In 1939, Bel Geddes was commissioned by the Housing Corporation of America (HCA) to design and develop an affordable, prefabricated single–family dwelling. By the time of completion in 1941, Bel Geddes’s mass–produced house model included 27 separate building modules complete with doors, windows, utility units, and the kitchen and bathroom, “ready for connection to service lines.” The low–cost prefabricated panel system provided an economic alternative to traditional domestic building techniques.

To meet the needs of low–income families, each four–room home was to be erected for a cost of $2,500 under a “controlled co-operative” system. Licensed by the HCA, the co-operative system would provide former Works Progress Administration laborers with salaries and shares, thus keeping thousands of Americans off of government assistance. Bel Geddes sought to modernize the assembly and marketing of houses in anticipation of a postwar housing crisis.

Although the modular home project was never realized, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated dwelling system displays his ingenuity not only in building techniques but also in his promotional strategies. As a part of Revere Copper and Brass’s “Better Living Campaign” of 1941, Bel Geddes’s prefabricated home occupied full-page advertisements in the Saturday Evening Post. By 1945 the Revere Copper and Brass Company had distributed more than 800,000 copies of a 12-page booklet describing Bel Geddes’s plan for “tomorrow’s homes for the many.”

Bel Geddes had explored ways to effectively configure space into cost-effective designs since the late 1930s. Ultimately, his interest in prefabrication waned after a proposed prefabricated “Expand-a-House” franchise in the mid-1950s failed to launch.

“Unassembled Model of Bel Geddes’s Prefabricated House” is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6.

Photo Friday

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.
Author Michael Chabon signed the authors’ door while on campus for a discussion of his latest book, "Telegraph Avenue." Photo by Pete Smith.

An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
An exhibition visitor enjoys "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Photo by Pete Smith.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves  glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into  acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.
Federal Work-Study sophomore Nathan Carmichael, a classical archaeology and anthropology major, sleeves glass negatives from the "New York Journal-American" photographic morgue into acid-free storage. Photo by Edgar Walters.