Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 10, 2019
B. Alexandra Szerlip The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America Brooklyn: Melville House Books, 2017. 368 pp. Cloth $27.99 (9781612195629)
Nicolas P. Maffei Norman Bel Geddes: American Design Visionary Cultural Histories of Design. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. 256 pp.; 150 b/w ills. Paperback £21.99 (9781474284615)

In the 1950s Norman Bel Geddes drafted his autobiography, I Designed My Life. His story covered the entirety of his vast career in one million words. Miracle in the Evening, the edited version published in 1960 two years following his death, focused solely on Bel Geddes’s theater work, simplifying his legacy to only one area of design. But in fact, there was hardly an area of design that Bel Geddes did not influence. As his point of view oscillated between futurist and pragmatist, Bel Geddes earned the title of “the father of industrial design” due to the success and scope of his impact across sectors. His leadership helped to formalize the entire industrial design profession and along the way he formulated groundbreaking prophecies. As author B. Alexandra Szerlip writes, “The world Bel Geddes departed was most unrecognizable from the one he’d been born into. He could rightfully take credit for having put a hand to that vast difference” (Szerlip, 362). One of the industrial designer’s first projects was a magazine of avant-garde art and ideas called Inwhich (1915) and one of his last was a Wall-less House (1952), while in between fell radios, cars, jewelry, stoves, circus tents, war models, and so much more. Continual self-fashioning propelled and distinguished Bel Geddes’s career: a magician as a little boy, he grew up to be an author, stage designer, portraitist, vaudevillian, advertising artist, architect, and industrial designer.

Two recent biographies on Norman Bel Geddes by Szerlip and Nicolas P. Maffei draw on many of the same archival sources (most notably the Norman Bel Geddes papers at the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas) to produce books that differ in tone and focus, which speaks to the multidimensional nature of the designer himself. The Man Who Designed the Future by Szerlip takes its cue from Miracle in the Evening and gives preference to Bel Geddes’s theater designs. Between 1916 and 1942 Bel Geddes designed over seventy theatrical productions, including Max Reinhardt’s production of The Miracle and Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, many of which Szerlip details in their conception, budget, reception, and relative success. The author also demonstrates how his theater designs led directly to industrial applications. For instance, the construction of the Oriole stove, made up of enameled sheet metal panels hung from a steel frame, was informed by a mechanism used for set design in The Patriot. Filled with dialogue, the book’s narrative tone positions the reader side by side with Bel Geddes as he works, plays, and travels. Twenty-three short chronological chapters segment his career into many distinct moments, often tied to geography—Chicago, Detroit, Hollywood, and Paris—which show how Bel Geddes traveled and made an impact in a series of important cities.

Maffei’s Norman Bel Geddes: American Design Visionary, written for a more scholarly audience as part of Bloomsbury’s Cultural Histories of Design series, explores Bel Geddes’s role in shaping the culture of modernity at large. While Szerlip’s narrative hinges on many specific personal and professional moments, Maffei takes a wider view at the context for the industrial designer’s rise in the early twentieth century, a rise that thrived on crossovers between creative sectors such as advertising, product design, theater, and commercial art. In an effective storytelling device, the author reveals how Bel Geddes’s thoughts and actions can often be traced back and related to those theories and histories contained in books that filled his personal library. Beyond those writers most familiarly associated with Bel Geddes, including H. G. Wells, Hugh Ferriss, and Le Corbusier, Maffei also highlights Bel Geddes’s fascination with the writings of other architects, theorists, and designers, including Frederick Kiesler, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bruno Taut, Earnest Elmo Calkins, and Claude Fayette Bragdon. These sources educated him on a spectrum of disciplines, from psychoanalysis to scientific management. Maffei grounds Bel Geddes’s projects in the “shifting intellectual currents of the first half of the twentieth century” (2).

Bel Geddes’s curiosity and tendency for experimentation were evident from a young age; his childhood hero was Thomas Edison, one of America’s greatest inventors. His expansive résumé reflects the cross-disciplinarity of design as a creative field in the middle decades of the twentieth century. By 1927 Bel Geddes described industrial design as a hybrid job, balancing the contradictory skill sets and outlooks of the businessman and the artist. Industrial design gained influence as styling proved to be directly responsible for a rise in profits, bringing business and the arts into close alignment. At the same time, industry was becoming an artistic patron, restyling products, logos, storefronts, office buildings, and factories at the hands of the industrial designer.

This unique combination of pragmatism and imagination determined marketplace success and was at the core of Bel Geddes’s reputation and impact. Szerlip points out how Bel Geddes oscillated from futurist to practical designer according to the project at hand, from flying cars and window display designs to automobiles and stoves. Meanwhile, Maffei shows how Bel Geddes promoted himself as a “practical visionary” under his motto “imagination creates the actual” (8–9). Maffei also underscores the research activities of his firm; for instance, beginning in the 1930s, Bel Geddes and his colleagues began combing over decades of data on auto registration, population trends, city planning, and street traffic. The results of these studies can be observed in the famous Futurama exhibit for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, proving that the designer’s vision for the future was based on present-day facts. Furthermore, in 1944, the designer codified his office operations in a four-volume Standard Practice handbook. Maffei explains how the firm’s efficiency enabled the designer’s foresight and his ability to encourage clients to take risks. By 1934, just seven years after his firm’s founding, Bel Geddes’s staff had grown to fifty and the firm was earning fees as high as $290,000 with a net profit of $94,000.

Both books discuss and illustrate Bel Geddes’s most famous projects, including The Miracle’s set design (1924), his book Horizons (1932), the streamlined Chrysler Airflow (1934), and the Futurama installation (1939), while also giving space to some of his lesser-known client work, such as a pole-less tent for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus (1940), prefabricated housing units (1940s), and costume jewelry for Trifari (1940s). In order to help the reader navigate this complex career in design, Szerlip and Maffei identify similar approaches to problem-solving across disparate intellectual and creative activities. For instance, Bel Geddes developed a strategy of using a standardized kit of parts with compatible dimensions that he applied to his designs for Franklin Simon window displays (1927–29), the Standard Gas Equipment Oriole and Acorn stoves (1930–33), and plans for prefabricated service stations (1934) and houses (1940s).

Szerlip and Maffei position the work of Bel Geddes as presaging much later design developments, therefore emphasizing the long-lasting effects of his influence. Many of his ideas were ambitious and formulated well before their time. For example, Szerlip highlights how Bel Geddes devised the concept of “surround sound” for theatrical productions prior to its introduction as a technology decades later. For the January 1931 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal, Bel Geddes contributed an article entitled “Ten Years from Now” with more than sixty predictions for the future, including some compelling concepts that did in fact materialize, such as the rise of synthetic materials and the sophistication of automated machinery.

In a 1933 Christian Science Monitor article entitled “Art for Utility’s Sake,” which reviewed Bel Geddes’s book Horizons, the journalist wrote, “We fear the product designer because his commodity is change.” Indeed, Bel Geddes sold clients new possibilities for change from the small scale of a typewriter key to the large scale of a city. These two studies significantly add to our understanding of the complex profession of industrial design in America by identifying its skill set as a combination of imagination and business savvy. These publications join recent monographic accounts of the first generation of American industrial designers as the first book-length works on Norman Bel Geddes. In existing scholarship, the designer is often mentioned alongside the other members of the “big four”—Henry Dreyfuss, Raymond Loewy, and Walter Dorwin Teague—and singled out for his speculative ideas. These two studies paint a much more nuanced picture of Bel Geddes as one who envisioned the future but was also engaged with the needs and desires of contemporary consumers. The authors present significant primary research that shapes a new appreciation for the Bel Geddes persona and the great range of innovative products and plays that make up this American designer’s multifaceted legacy.

Emily Orr
Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York