Norman Bel Geddes Exhibition Opens

I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on view at The Wolfsonian from June 27 through September 28, 2014, is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition to date on the visionary and multifaceted designer, whose impact continues to be felt—and seen—today.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was best known for his design of the Futurama display for the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” exhibition at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, an enormous model envisioning America circa 1960. Visitors to Futurama received pins proclaiming, “I have seen the future.”

Bel Geddes was self-taught, a high-school dropout who forged a successful career as both a designer and an oracle of sorts, extolling the American future even—and especially—during the Great Depression.  His designs, both realized and unrealized, spanned an incredible range, from stage sets to superhighways, from models of the great pyramids for Encyclopedia Britannica to Miami Beach’s Copa City Nightclub, from offices to ocean liners.

“He wasn’t only multi-talented, he was involved in all aspects of every project he did,” notes Wolfsonian Curator Silvia Barisione. “He was interested in all the different layers of the work.”

Bel Geddes started out as a theater designer, working on stage sets, costumes, lighting, and even theater interiors, first in Lost Angeles and then in New York. After achieving a good deal of success in that arena, he moved on to industrial design and architecture. Although not a licensed architect, he designed offices, nightclubs, factories, stadiums, houses, restaurants, ocean liners, industrial products, and more, including projects as fantastical as revolving restaurants and flying cars. Bel Geddes was a pioneer of streamline design, notes Barisione, and had a particular influence on commercial mid-century architecture.  

His vision helped to shape modern American design and his legacy is apparent today. As the curatorial text notes, “When you drive on an interstate highway, attend a multi-media 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.”

The exhibition is organized by the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin, a research library and museum whose collection includes Bel Geddes’s archives. Before traveling to The Wolfsonian, the exhibition was on view at the Ransom Center and the Museum of the City of New York.

Organizing curator Donald Albrecht describes sorting through “boxes after boxes and finding incredibly compelling material” in the archives while researching the exhibition. He views Bel Geddes as a “fascinating, paradoxical, and remarkable figure” who was a magician as a child and retained an aspect of showmanship throughout his career. He was optimistic, with a staunch belief in a bright future on the immediate horizon and the view that “design is supposed to make your life better,” Albrecht says. “He predicted many of the things we live with today. His work was a kind of theatricalized architecture that impacted popular American architecture. His belief, throughout his career, is that design is part of your everyday life and it can transform your life.”

Visitors to the exhibition can participate in interactive activities in The Wolfsonian’s lobby, including a building station (complete with building and sketching materials to realize your futuristic vision), a writing station (write a letter to your future self, beginning with the prompt “I have seen the future…”), and a photo op with a backdrop of the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a richly illustrated color catalogue, Norman Bel Geddes Design America (Abrams), which collects eighteen essays on Bel Geddes and his work. The catalogue is available in The Wolfsonian’s Museum Shop. 

Captions (click below to enlarge):

Top:

Futurama car
Photo by Pete Smith
Image courtesy the estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes / Harry Ransom Center

Bottom:

Maurice Goldberg. Norman Bel Geddes’s model of the Aerial Restaurant, c. 1930
Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation / Harry Ransom Center

Norman Bel Geddes’s name on glass door of Copa City, with showgirl, c. 1948
Image courtesy of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation / Harry Ransom Center

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Norman Bel Geddes Exhibition Opens
Norman Bel Geddes Exhibition Opens