The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America is now open at the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami Beach, Florida. Pulled mostly from the Ransom Center’s Bel Geddes archive, the exhibition originated in fall 2012 at the Ransom Center and was on view earlier this year at the Museum of the City of New York. Bringing together some 200 unique drawings, models, photographs, and films, this exhibition highlights Bel Geddes’s creativity and desire to transform American society through design.
Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958) was an industrial and theatrical designer who gained fame in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for his streamlined and futuristic innovations. His designs played a significant role in shaping America’s image as an innovative powerhouse and global leader into the future. One of his most famous undertakings was the unforgettable Futurama exhibition at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair.
I Have Seen the Future is on view at the Wolfsonian until September 28.
Image: Norman Bel Geddes, Motor Car No. 9 (without tail fin), ca. 1933.
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.
Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama exhibit, dedicated to “building the world of tomorrow,” proved to be a step into Bob Hesdorfer’s future before he’d even arrived.
“I was probably 14,” says Hesdorfer, referring to the spring day in 1939 that he and a classmate spent at the New York World’s Fair. The exhibit, which took place at Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, marked one of his first ventures into adulthood. Hesdorfer recalls, “For the very first time, I was allowed to take the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway on my own.” Nearly three-quarters of a century later, he still remembers it fondly.
Upon arriving, Hesdorfer recounts, “We hit many of the pavilions, but we couldn’t begin to cover the whole fair in one day. I think the General Motors [Futurama exhibit] was the one we headed for first.” They weren’t alone in their eager enthusiasm. “As I recall, there were long lines waiting to get in.” When asked whether he thought the other guests were as excited as he was, Hesdorfer responded, “Oh, you could just tell.”
Simply entering Futurama proved arresting: “We were overwhelmed. It was really something that I had never seen before… We were curious about what it was all about,” says Hesdorfer. More than just a collection of sleek predictions, the exhibit represented an entirely new way of viewing a world shaped by humans. It allowed viewers a departure from temporal technological constraints, offering a tangible example of a delightful but elusive concept: the potential of the future. For Hesdorfer, who grew up to be a graphic designer, the experience was particularly inspiring. “Everything was smooth and clean and rounded and pristine… I appreciated the concept and the design work that went into it… I thought I could have been an automobile designer… I would have liked to have been an industrial designer as Bel Geddes was.”
Hesdorfer describes the experience: “When we got to the Futurama model, they had these chairs on a conveyor belt, and we got in a couple chairs and rode around the whole thing. The model was in the middle below us and we could look down on it.”
“There was a voice describing what we were seeing, and it was just mindboggling… The traffic was below ground, or at least below the sidewalk level, and the sidewalks were above and around. There was no direct contact with the traffic, so it was safer and easier. You didn’t have to wait to cross the street or for the light to change.”
Some of Bel Geddes’s predictions, nearly inconceivable at the time, now seem believable. Hesdorfer recalls, “One of the things that they predicted was keeping automatic distance between vehicles on the highway, and now I guess it’s just about ready for use in the cars.”
The fair made a lasting impression on the boys. When asked whether Hesdorfer knew at that age who Norman Bel Geddes was, he responded, “Probably not before [Futurama].” He’s certainly known about him ever since.
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.
Perhaps best known as the innovative designer of the Futurama exhibition in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair, Norman Bel Geddes was also a noted theater designer, fabricating costumes, sets, lighting, and theaters.
After beginning his career in Los Angeles, Bel Geddes moved to New York City in 1917 where his creative ambitions manifested in producing dynamic theater experiences. Using principles of the European New Stagecraft movement, Bel Geddes brought German director Max Reinhardt’s The Miracle to the American stage. The New Stagecraft movement, which divorced theater from the structures of bourgeois realism, aligned with Bel Geddes’s vision of simplified details and abstract settings and costumes.
Bel Geddes’s work on the 1924 production of The Miracle reveals his talents as a theatrical polymath. The play, a medieval legend about a nun, relied on Bel Geddes’s mechanized scenery and single switchboard. The technical modifications allowed a single electrician to control the focus, direction, and color of the lighting. Audience members sat on pews to watch the play, as Bel Geddes transformed the interior of the theater into a Gothic cathedral, complete with light trickling through stained glass windows and incense wafting through the air. The Miracle fused theater and architecture, creating a participatory environment thatimmersed audience members in the drama thatsurrounded them.
Highlighted here is a series of four costume designs for The Miracle, including “Oriental Gentleman,” “Chief Gypsy or Jester,” “Noble Gentleman,” and “Gypsy Woman.” The watercolors showcase Bel Geddes’s dexterity as an artist.
The innovations of Bel Geddes’s early theatrical career inform his later work as an industrial designer. Indeed, the same mechanical track system used to move scenery in The Miracle also guided model cars along the highway system of Futurama.
From September 11, 2012, to January 6, 2013, the Harry Ransom Center hosts the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,
which explores the career of stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes. The Ransom Center holds Bel Geddes’s professional archive, personal files, and library.
Writer/editor Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow and a recent Yaddo fellow, is working on a biography of Bel Geddes, tentatively titled Impossible Dreamer: The Eccentric Genius of Norman Bel Geddes.
Szerlip contributed the essay Colossal in Scale, Appalling in Complexity: The Genesis of Futurama for the May issue of The Believer Magazine. In the piece Szerlip shares her discovery of the detailed private games that Bel Geddes created in the 1920s and early 1930s, which served as precursors to Futurama, the landmark exhibition he created for the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Even after 10 weeks of researching the collection at the Ransom Center, the material provided Szerlip with many surprises.
Szerlip reveals Bel Geddes’s meticulous creation of games, highlighting War Game and the Nutshell Jockey Club, which featured electrical horse races in Bel Geddes’s basement. The game attracted regulars such as New Yorker founder Harold Ross and Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield and Hollywood actors Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks. For War Game, Bel Geddes’s rules were as thick as a phone book, and the board was 24 feet long and four feet wide.
“The humor and the insight into Bel Geddes’s character that this particular story provides were immediately obvious to me,” said Szerlip. “It was a short step from the games to Futurama and beyond—work he subsequently did for the military during WWII. It was just a question fleshing it all out and then assembling the bits and pieces.”
“There have been many wonderful, even startling, surprises. And more, I’m sure, to come when I return to Austin this fall.”