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

By Ady Wetegrove

 

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.

From the Outside In: Model of "Motorcar No. 9," Norman Bel Geddes, ca. 1932

By Edgar Walters

Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Model of "Motorcar No. 9." Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This image of a streamlined car is the product of designer Norman Bel Geddes, who gained fame during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for a broad range of designs. He received his start in New York designing theatrical sets in which he emphasized the use of lighting to set mood as well as provide illumination. He also designed film sets in Hollywood, including some for director Cecil B. DeMille.

Bel Geddes’s design ideas embraced all of modern life. Motorcar Number 9 provides an example of his interest in streamlining. In many ways this car is different from any built at that time or later. It offered excellent visibility through the use of curved glass for the windshield and windows. The steering wheel and single headlight were in the center. The car featured a vertical stabilizer, or rudder, in its tail, like an airplane. The front and rear bumpers were made of chrome, and the rear bumper was attached by three hydraulic shock absorbers. This design offered good use of interior space, providing seating for eight.

This image comes from a time when streamlining was thought to be the wave of the future. In 1931 Bel Geddes described a “House of Tomorrow” that set the stage for architectural streamlining focused on clean and uncluttered lines. He then incorporated the same concept in his design for a “City of Tomorrow,” which became the basis for the hugely popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

Bel Geddes’s ideas have made great contributions to modern design, particularly in the field of transportation. He designed trains, ocean liners, airplanes, cars, and even a flying car. On the exterior, they achieved streamlining by means of a teardrop shape. In the interior, equal attention was given to the use of space, designed to provide large capacities and unique functions. His airliner, for instance, had decks that featured a gymnasium, a solarium, and even areas for deck games. He also designed the interior of the Pan American China Clipper airliner, which featured a central lounge wider than a Pullman club car and was fitted with broad armchairs. These ideas are still visible today—just look at the streamlined vehicles on the animated show Futurama, which borrowed its name from Bel Geddes.

The Ransom Center’s extensive Norman Bel Geddes archive includes a model of Motorcar Number 9, along with other designs, models, and papers that span over 50 years.

Ransom Center volunteer Ray McLeod wrote this post.

Curator discusses Norman Bel Geddes’s influence in video

By Ady Wetegrove

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.

In the Galleries: Norman Bel Geddes's diagram for 'Highways and Horizons'

By Ady Wetegrove

Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.
Norman Bel Geddes's firm's 'diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit,' c. 1938. Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation.

Forecasting the automobile’s ability to transform society, industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes planned his Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair around vehicular transportation systems. The Fair’s theme, “Building the World of Tomorrow,” provided an international stage for Bel Geddes to showcase his optimistic and auto-centric vision of the future American landscape. Bel Geddes, along with other modernist pioneers, crafted models, dioramas, and multimedia displays to provide Depression-era Americans with a brighter vision of the future.

Eager to shape national consciousness, Bel Geddes provided attendees of Futurama at the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” pavilion with a choreographed experience on the curvilinear thoroughfares of an imagined 1960 America. One of the World Fair’s most popular attractions, Futurama led exhibit-goers on model highways through a massive model city, complete with miniature buildings, trees, and streamlined automobiles. The holistic urban plan of Futurama borrowed from Bel Geddes’s earlier theater work, in which he created a dynamic and participatory environment for audience members.

Shown here is a 1938 “diagram in relief of city-traffic plan for 1960 showing features of boulevards and location of Highways & Horizons exhibit.” Tear-drop shaped highways bisect the model city and converge at the General Motors Exhibition Buildings, which housed Futurama. Proposing ways to alleviate traffic congestion and increase efficiency, Bel Geddes created imaginative traffic plans to route through-traffic around the city center.

Recognizing the growing importance of automobiles in American society, Bel Geddes modeled his Futurama around an intricate network of streamlined motorways. Futurama’s elevated pedestrian walks and interconnected highway systems would not only accommodate fast and more efficient modes of transportation but would also foster American egalitarianism through the linkage of rural and urban areas. Bel Geddes even fought “to keep large super-billboards off the highways in Futurama.”

With Futurama’s success, Bel Geddes pursued avenues to alter America’s fledgling car culture. Bel Geddes alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt of Futurama’s “enormous popularity. . . as indicated by the nation-wide press use of the subject matter, and the consequent editorial comment.” In response, Roosevelt appointed Bel Geddes to work on preliminary plans for the National Motorway Planning Authority, which influenced the interstate highway system of the 1950s.

This diagram of a city-traffic plan for 1960 is on view in the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, which runs through January 6, 2013.