Norman Bel Geddes and the invention of 20th century America

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Do you think driverless cars are a new idea? Then you should hear about Norman Bel Geddes, an industrial designer decades ahead of his time.

Do you feel overwhelmed by huge technological change? Well, imagine how folks felt when they saw Futurama, a model of a utopian future city shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

The huge model displayed cars racing down seven-lane automated highways between suburban homes and high-rise office towers, floating airports and experimental farms.

Shot of Futurama’s interior (1939 New York World’s Fair)

Six hundred visitors at a time flew on a simulated airplane ride across this vision of America circa 1960. General Motors sponsored the immersive exhibit which cost today’s equivalent of $90 million and attracted around 27 million people during its two-season run.

The designer Norman Bel Geddes created Futurama. Born in 1893, he was a ninth-grade dropout who went on to become a towering innovator of the early 20th century — shaping products, advertising, stage design, buildings, aircraft, dance clubs and cities.

But he never got his due, says writer B. Alexandra Szerlip, and was upstaged in design history by near contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy. So she decided to correct the record by writing a book about him, called “The Man Who Designed the Future: Norman Bel Geddes and the Invention of Twentieth-Century America.” The book traces the journey of a penniless man who made his way from the Midwest to New York, armed with the gift of drawing and plenty of grit.

Photo of B. Alexandra Szerlip by Adam Keker (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“When he came to New York he was pretty young. He was in his mid 20s, and he was very much a Midwesterner, a bit of a rube if I may say so. But he had great determination. He had the energy of youth, if you will. And he just forged ahead,” Szerlip said.

Bel Geddes became extremely influential in the development of staging and theater design, which he called “his fickle mistress.”

“He came up with different lighting systems, he came up with transparent glass flooring, he came up with all sorts of clever ideas about staging,” Szerlip said. “He spent decades revolutionizing Broadway, the way sets, costumes, particularly lighting were done. He even reconfigured the actual structure of the theaters. He was known all over the world for that.”

Bel Geddes took his interest in design to the commercial sphere, designing a “self-cleaning oven” to replace wrought-iron stoves that were greasy, hard to clean and had no temperature control. He did it by talking to housewives about their frustrations with conventional ovens.

“It seems like a no brainer. But at the time it was completely radical,” Szerlip said. “The advertising industry in the 1920s believed that there was no point in talking to the public and asking them what they wanted because, what did they know? Industry’s job was to come up with stuff so they could sell it, make money, and advertising’s job was to convince the public that they needed that stuff.”

He took that interest in redesigning all sorts of objects, ranging from an Art Deco cocktail set to the bright orange, round-cornered Patriot Radio, a streamlined ocean liner, the Palais Royal nightclub in 1922, and plans for a pilot television studio for NBC in 1954.

But his greatest contribution was the 1939 Futurama exhibit, which gave visitors a bird’s-eye view of a city of the future.

“It opened people’s eyes in an unprecedented way to the possibilities of what was believed to be the future at the time,” Szerlip said. “He also was an early visionary of self-driving cars. And a lot of the ideas that he incorporated in Futurama were not absolutely original with him, but his genius was how he melded them together.”