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

By Ady Wetegrove

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

By Harry Ransom Center

 

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"

By Jennifer Tisdale

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

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.

"Norman Bel Geddes Designs America" receives media attention

By Jennifer Tisdale

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.

Remembering Futurama at the 1939 New York World’s Fair

By Edgar Walters

Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Bob Hesdorfer visits "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America." Hesdorfer attended Bel Geddes' Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

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 with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.
Hesdorfer with Ransom Center Director Thomas F. Staley. Photo by Alicia Dietrich.

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.

In The Galleries: Bel Geddes’s Modular Homes

By Ady Wetegrove

"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.