The Harry Ransom Center presents the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” which explores the career of American stage and industrial designer, futurist and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958).
Running from Sept. 11, 2012, to Jan. 6, 2013, the exhibition includes work from more than 60 of Bel Geddes’ projects, including materials relating to “Futurama,” Bel Geddes’ 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair installation for General Motors.
“I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America” highlights more than 300 items from Bel Geddes’ extensive archive at the Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum at The University of Texas at Austin, including models, drawings, paintings, film footage and photographs.
The exhibition reflects the broad range of Bel Geddes’ interests and work and demonstrates 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.
“It was Bel Geddes, more than any designer of his era, who created and promoted a dynamic vision of the future with an image that was streamlined, technocratic and optimistic.”
A paradoxical figure of equal parts visionary and pragmatist, serious inventor and inveterate promoter, naturalist and industrialist, democrat and egoist, Bel Geddes sought nothing less than the transformation of modern American society through design.
The exhibition is organized into five sections that highlight some of the diverse work of Bel Geddes: “Setting the Stage 1916-1927,” “Industrious Design 1927-1937,” “A Bigger World 1937-1945,” “Futurama 1939-1940” and “Total Living 1945-1958.”
Bel Geddes focused on theater design early in his career, adapting the American stage to the principles of the New Stagecraft movement in Europe and creating immersive theater experiences. A multitalented theatrical genius, Bel Geddes designed shows’ costumes, lighting and scenery, often taking complete control of the audience experience.
In the late 1920s, Bel Geddes was one of the leading practitioners and founders of the new field of industrial design and popularized streamlining as a design concept with his publication “Horizons” (1932). He produced designs with streamlined aesthetics for products and ideas as diverse as home appliances, flying cars and floating airports. He also designed factories, offices and nightclubs.
“Bel Geddes played a seminal role in shaping the expectations and behavior of American consumers and helped to transform both the industrial design and theater design professions into modern businesses,” said Albrecht.
Bel Geddes became an urban visionary, and the pinnacle of his career was “Futurama,” a dramatic visualization of a future American city that gave Depression-era Americans genuine hope for a better future within their lifetimes.
The installation included more than 35,000 square feet with detailed scale models of highways, 500,000 individually designed miniature buildings, 1 million trees of 13 different species and 50,000 scale model cars and buses, 10,000 of which moved.
Bel Geddes later moved from designing individual products to designing complete systems, such as urban utopias and national highway plans. He also designed a never-built suspended roof or all-weather, all-purpose stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers during 1948-52. In the 1950s, Bel Geddes conceived of a tropical walless house that could be open or closed to the elements as weather dictated.
Complementing the exhibition is “Visions of the Future,” the Ransom Center’s 10th Fleur Cowles Flair Symposium, which brings together historians, architects, industrial designers and visionaries in the fields of science fiction, film, theater and future studies to explore the ways the future has been imagined over time.
Scheduled for Nov. 1-3, the symposium will feature panel topics including “Imagining the Future,” “Designing the Future,” “Marketing the Future,” “Motorways in the Twentieth Century and Today” and “Today’s Visions for Tomorrow,” with science fiction writer Bruce Sterling, whose archive is held at the Ransom Center, delivering the keynote address.
Accompanying the exhibition is the publication “Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” which will be published by Abrams in November. Edited by Albrecht in association with the Ransom Center and the Museum of the City of New York, the 400-page publication includes 20 essays by scholars that cover Bel Geddes’ life, career and specific projects.
The exhibition and the companion publication have been made possible in part with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the trustees of the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Family Foundation, an FAIC/Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant, Janet and Jack Roberts, and IBM Corp.
“I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America” can be seen in the Ransom Center Galleries on Tuesdays through Fridays 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. The galleries are closed on Mondays.
The Museum of the City of New York also plans to host the exhibition.
High-resolution press images from the exhibition are available.