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A new biography of Norman Bel Geddes, designer of the Futurama, tells the story of American innovation.
The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America
B. Alexander Szerlip
Melville House, $22.39 (cloth)
Inside every utopia is a dystopia striving to get out. World-changing plans to bring all human life and activity under beneficent control devolve inevitably into regimentation and compulsion. Edenic life-affirming communes descend into chaos and waste. Our presently evolving techutopia has barely reached its peak, and yet in it this horror-movie process has already begun: information must be free, and so lies and manipulations proliferate; common human connections are degraded; limits on power and self-dealing erode. Inequality increases with differential access. And all this in less than a single generation.
The utopian promises of the mid-twentieth century (modernism, broadly understood) stayed alive for longer, largely because its projects, which depended on design, manufacturing processes, materials, and city planning, took years or decades to be fully realized, while the world seemed to stay much the same. In 1939 the greater part of America was still a land of Toonerville trolleys, boarding houses, balky mules, door-to-door salesmen, pump handles, iceboxes, A&P’s, nerve tonics, kerosene, two-bit haircuts, hand-rolled cigarettes, incurable diseases, and patched inner-tubes, even as the idea of the future was brought closer with every newsreel and skyscraper and issue of Life or Look.
While older utopias often were predicated on returning to the virtues of an imagined past, a key figure behind this utopia of the new was Norman Bel Geddes, a theatre designer turned industrial designer. Bel Geddes is best known for designing the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a huge and hugely celebrated vision of the world of 1960, full of towering modernist skyscrapers in new cities and lots and lots of cars.
The World's Fair assumed that the future would simply remake us as it came into being.
In a rich, swift, and entrancing new biography, The Man Who Designed the Future, Barbara Alexander Szerlip goes so far as to credit Bel Geddes with the invention of twentieth century America. Credit for that is more commonly ascribed to Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison or Henry Ford, but Szerlip’s claim is justified if by the twentieth century we mean the things, the look, the places, and the occasions of the new. Bel Geddes, as Szerlip shows, invented the new not once but again and again, superficially and radically, in theater and stage design, in the windows of department stores, in appliances, public spaces, tools, and spectacles.
All that kept his projects from wholly burdening the future with the utopian condition of corruption was that many were imaginary, ephemeral, unbuilt or destroyed; the simplest and smallest (a gas range, an electric typewriter, a dance floor) can still inspire the common American nostalgia for the new.
How did he become who he would be? Szerlip’s first chapters recount an 1890s Midwestern upbringing reminiscent of Orson Welles’s depiction of The Magnificent Ambersons: a huge Victorian house with broad lawns and deep porches, and prize-winning horses with silver-plated harnesses that would soon be replaced by large cars. The Geddes family was ruled by a grandfather, the judge, and cared for by several servants, including a Native American man named Will de Haw who served as the young Norman’s teacher, groom, handler, and coachman for years. Norman grew up fascinated with Indians: his first major theater spectacle would be a pageant-play about Native American lore.
Norman’s father also seems drawn from a novel of the period: a charming, careless and restless man who after the judge’s death invested the family money unwisely, losing the big house and the prize horses, and who left his family in bad straits to go recoup in businesses elsewhere. He failed and died young, perhaps by suicide.
That is the origin story, and the right one for the work the young Norman set out upon. As a penniless striving illustrator and adman, dreamer of vast theater projects, tinkerer and toymaker, he was so sure of himself that he traveled to New York to pitch his radical idea for stage lighting to the great impresario David Belasco. Instead of flat overhead lights and footlights, he said, theatres ought to use thousand-watt spotlights, dimmable and in any color, to pick out which part of the stage the audience’s attention should be drawn to; side-lighting should be used to model and heighten actor’s faces. Belasco dismissed the 24-year old novice and his plans and then adopted the idea, advertising it as his own. But do we guess that Norman will be sidelined, driven back to the provinces for good? We do not.
Back in Ohio he meets Helen Belle Schneider, aka Bel, a young school teacher who graduated second in her class at Smith College. Her passions were music and poetry, Szerlip tells us, and more enchanting, she was a master of bird calls. The afternoon they met he kissed her. She was a Methodist (as was his family) and a teetotaler. They were soon partners in the advertising and art business in Toledo, and he added her nickname to his own, becoming Norman Bel Geddes. They married and had two daughters (the youngest, Barbara, became an actress and is likely better known today than her father).
The invention of twentieth century America can be ascribed to Norman Bel Geddes, alongside Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.
Lifted by his talents and the times, Bel Geddes leaves the wife and kids and family business in Toledo and goes back to New York, that cosmopolitan realm of endless possibility. The late ‘20s were when his greatest theater successes were made. Szerlip recounts the epic story of Bel Geddes’s work on the pageant-play The Miracle, produced and directed by Max Reinhardt, for which he turned a large Broadway theater into a Gothic cathedral. Theater-goers entered what appeared to be a “dim, towering 110-foot church, their footsteps echoing on the stone-slabbed aisles (an asbestos composition).”
As they looked for their seats (pews for 3,100 people), priests, sacristans and the occasional worshiper would be moving about lighting candles or counting their beads. The smell of incense would mix with the smell of melting wax. The only illumination, beyond the candles (more than 800) and faux candles (834), would be brilliant shafts of artificial sunlight, punctuating the sacred gloom through three dozen Bel Geddes-designed stained glass windows—ranging from 40 to 80 feet in height, made of thin 10,000-square-foot sheets of muslin stretched and painted to appear semitransparent when lit from behind.
The numbers are impressive even now. Costs exceeded a half-million in 1928 dollars, or some five million in today’s. And it was a vast, long-lasting, wildly-praised, continent-touring hit. From then on producers interested in high-risk innovative spectacles counted on Bel Geddes to bring them in successfully.
Keeping up with Bel Geddes’s meteoric rise tests Szerlip’s considerable storytelling skills; the sensational anecdotes and sidebars come so fast that they clamber over one another, sometimes falling out of order. Often she has to backtrack from Bel Geddes designing a car or a stove to Bel Geddes in the theater or remaking a corporate boardroom. The book is crowded with detail and managed seemingly on the fly, as the man’s projects often were. It is dizzying and highly accomplished fun.
Bel Geddes triumphed with innovative designs even for forgettable or trivial plays; every opening night was packed with the worlds of art and wit and money. Szerlip carries her subject through 1920s Manhattan with so many famous names dropped that the reader risks a slip-and-fall. “In the course of an afternoon,” Szerlip tells us, “he met William and Lucius Beebe, Nelson Doubleday, Alva Johnston, cartoonists Don Marquis and Rube Goldberg, photographer Arnold Genthe, Broadway producer Gilbert Miller, conductor Walter Damrosch, painter Rockwell Kent and the Prime Minister of Australia.” She makes time for a thrilling recap of Bel Geddes’s minutes-long affair with the diarist Anais Nin after a night in the Harlem nightclubs he loved. (He was a great dancer.)
It is all swift and smart and charming, and by the time it turns darker with the Depression, Bel Geddes has not yet thought about inventing the future. That would come when he put aside the immense career he had built in theater and popular art and turned instead to designing places and things of use to the new world coming to be: things and places that would themselves be that new world.
What would come to be called industrial design was chiefly the province of engineers and architects, and Bel Geddes was neither. He certainly engineered things that he needed for his projects, and he designed spaces and places, but he was forced to add a line to his contracts stating that he and his firm were not architects. His talent was imagination—not only imagining how something should look, but why, and for what purpose, and how it could be made to serve that purpose.
Bel Geddes designed the places and things that would themselves constitute the new world.
One of Szerlip’s most revealing stories is of the remake of the Standard Gas Equipment company’s household gas range in 1930. Bel Geddes refused to simply remake the look of their stodgy product. He started from the beginning, sending out a team of investigators to ask people, especially women, what they would like to see in a new stove and what their complaints were about the old one. The result was what we still think of as a stove. SGE ranges had fixed oven racks; Bel Geddes made them slide out, for obvious reasons. He saw that the floor beneath a black enameled cabinet standing on legs like a bureau would get filthy and could be cleaned only on hands and knees; his would be flush with the floor, as they all are now. His design was white, with gleaming curved sides and bands of chrome that signified new, sleek, and fast—streamlined, in other words.
Streamlining, which would forever be associated with the industrial and commercial design of the period, began as a set of guidelines meant to reduce air and water resistance (drag on planes and cars and ships). It also imparted to objects an inherent yet gratuitous beauty that entranced people and designers alike, the very essence of new. The style rarely achieved the goals set for it (1930s cars and trains did not travel fast enough to be affected very much by air resistance), but it persisted as pure style, as signifier. And the look could be applied to anything. “Before long,” Szerlip notes, “there were streamlined radios, typewriters, and Chippewa potatoes (the ‘absence of deep eyes reduces waste in peeling and also speeds up the job for the housewife’), streamlined financial cutbacks, weight loss programs, inkwells and coffins.” We now had a word we did not know we needed, for uses we did not expect would arise. But the greatest efflorescence of applications for it came in the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the site of Bel Geddes’s best-known triumph.
The 1939 fair was conceived by what might be called practical utopians. That is, it was an enclosed space where new and better modes of life could be shown to be possible and workable. It was as much prescription as prediction. Social theorists, businessmen, and academics were recruited to educate the public in the industrialized, communitarian, engineered world that was sure to come—the world of tomorrow, as the slogans promised. They urged exhibitors not to simply show their goods and services, but to show the processes by which they were made, the worldwide trade in commodities they depended on, and the advances in cybernetics and administration they would bring about.
This got international businesses excited, and a lot of exhibitors not only invested hugely in educational displays—it was effectually the start of the modern audio-visual instruction mode—but also looked into the future, showing robots, simulated voyages to the moon, flying cars, streamlined everything. Bel Geddes’s Futurama within the General Motors exhibit hall (which he also designed) was the culmination. GM was set to redo the show they had built for the 1933 Chicago fair: an animated diorama of an assembly line, showing Chevys being put together. But—as in a scene from a movie of the period—Bel Geddes took a night flight to Detroit to meet with GM’s management and argue for something much grander. “What if the goal,” Szerlip recounts, “was to have the public wedded to GM’s ‘vision,’ and to make that vision so attractive and accessible that the average Jack and Jill would have a hard time imagining a future apart from it?” It is made more cinematic by Szerlip’s visual effects, with stuffy executives from central casting and the Old Man (in this case Alfred Sloan, chairman of the board) arising at last to anoint the brash optimist. Who’s to say it didn’t happen exactly as Bel Geddes, and Szerlip, tell it?
The Futurama not only talked about the future, it was the future. Bel Geddes, like a mad father setting up the world’s biggest train set for his kids, let people see the year 1960 in busy moving detail. Some 50,000 miniature streamlined cars traveled on miniature multilane highways like none that had then been built (buses and trains were, for obvious reasons, not emphasized). In that future America, the past had been scrubbed away. Not even farms and orchards were the same, and Bel Geddes’s towers and ports and highways arose without any reference to the past. It posed, without actually asking, the great question that utopias are never quite able to solve: how do we get from this flawed and hurtful world we live in, and the flawed and confused people we are, to the rational and cooperative world we want? The Futurama and the fair assumed that the future would simply remake us as it came into being, so that we could profit from its wonders—that the wonders would make the people, rather than the other way around.
The utopian visions of the World’s Fair were deliberately conceived in opposition not only to the wounded and weary America of the Depression, but to alternative utopian visions that were then making great strides around the world. Nazi Germany had no pavilion at the fair, though it was very much present in spirit. Lewis Mumford, author of The City in History and one of the initial planners of the fair, had envisioned the World of Tomorrow as a school for democracy, an education for visitors in taking charge of their world and their future. The new sciences and technologies, manufacturing processes, communications and social organization had to be understood, he argued, in order to be useful and successful for all, or for as many as possible.
But Mumford ended up disappointed in the fair as built. It simply asserted the “completely tedious and unconvincing belief” in the triumph of modern industry. “The less said about that today, the better,” he wrote at the time. The fair was still receiving millions of visitors when the German army invaded Poland, initiating a new world war only twenty-five years after the first began. The world had not only failed to learn the right lessons, it seemed to have internalized the wrong ones.
Bel Geddes should perhaps be included with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Orson Welles as 'a kind of magnificent failure.'
Bel Geddes spent the war years working on projects for the military, both ones they asked him for, such as better camouflage, and his own ideas, like a remote-controlled Television Bombing Plane (early television had been a big draw at the 1939 fair). But his great interest was the car. In a glamorous 1940 photo-book, Magic Motorways, he envisioned the American highway system, complete with multiple lanes and on-and-off ramps. The Pennsylvania Turnpike opened its first stretch that very year, but it wasn’t until 1956 that the Interstate Highway System was officially established. When it was, it was as much the offspring of Bel Geddes’s Futurama and the dominance of the car as it was a result of the bomb and the need for a rapid-response national defense.
Of course, the unintended ramifications of that long project include large components of air pollution and climate change, the slow death of public transportation, the erosion of cities and Main Street, and the sprawling expansion of a peacetime military. The challenge of changing the dystopia we find ourselves in now, again, is stupefying.
But just because a utopia is unattainable in practice—“unattainable” is almost part of the definition—that doesn’t mean the utopian impulse can’t have great power along a different parameter. In an important way it is not different from the general impulse to create imagined worlds that have no larger purpose than to be seen and experienced, in theater, in fiction, on film, in the model-train landscape of tunnels, bridges and stations running endlessly for its own sake.
In this respect it is interesting that in 1964, when a World’s Fair was again held in New York City, General Motors largely recycled the Bel Geddes future it had promised would already be in place by then. The point turned out not to be the future after all, except in the power it granted to the imagination to see it all as possible. The 1939 fair might have been conceived as a training course in living under late capitalism, but time has vacated that purpose and in a sense restored its innocence. It affords now not false promises of easy social progress but—in Vladimir Nabokov’s terms—aesthetic bliss: “that is, a sense of being somehow, somewhere connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
Szerlip’s book has only reached the two-thirds mark when the Futurama is behind her. The last hundred pages are as full as the first two hundred, with new projects, new love affairs, Barbara’s stardom and retreat, more famous names, a plan to put The Miracle on film starring Katherine Hepburn or maybe Greta Garbo—but fewer real accomplishments. When he died, in 1958, on a New York street of a heart attack at the age of sixty-five, Bel Geddes was pretty much broke and on his way to being forgotten. Szerlip, who obviously loves the man, tags him as oxymoronic: “a pacifist fascinated by war, a naturalist who loved technology, a serious prankster, a pragmatic futurist, a private man who was rarely alone.”
Bel Geddes was a practical man. He was an engineer and a maker who worked in the real world of mechanical stresses and materials and mass production and financing. It is impossible to distinguish between what he did to please his paying clients and what he did just because he wanted to see if he could—which is a fair definition of a popular artist—and often enough he could convince magnates and manufacturers that what he wanted to do was exactly what they needed.
Yet his most inspiring projects might be the impossible ones, the gratuitous acts of the imagination: the absurdly vast airliner with ballroom and orchestra, the unrealized theater projects, the flying car and the aerial restaurant. Szerlip wonders if Bel Geddes should be included with the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Orson Welles as “a kind of magnificent failure.” His standing ratio of conceptions realized to those unrealized, after all, was about 50-50. But the gorgeous only-imagined ones defy time and perversion. They obey perforce the greatest single prescription ever laid down for human action: first do no harm.
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