Norman Bel Geddes with the model of Futurama Exhibit for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Image from Edith Lutyens and Normal Bel Geddes Foundation/Harry Ransom Center
You might recognize the design and aesthetic of Normal Bel Geddes from the Futurama exhibit and the City of Tomorrow from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, but he has largely been forgotten today. Once dubbed “the Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century,” Geddes began his career designing sets for films, Broadway shows, and even operas at the Old Metropolitan Opera House. He later became the “go-to designer” for brands that now represent the consumer boom in the United States like General Motors, Chrysler, RCA, and Electrolux.
The Museum of the City of New York exhibit Norman Bel Geddes: I Have Seen the Future looks at the legacy of Geddes as a visionary and innovator in the field of industrial design. The exhibit focuses on Geddes’ role in envisioning the “streamlined, technocratic, and optimistic” future of the United States.
The future envisioned by Geddes, both at the ’39 World’s Fair and in his 1936 work the “Metropolis City of 1960” was one where streamlined vehicles were the main mode of transportation, utilizing a vast network of roads, highways, and byways. Had this future come to be, it might have been akin to the one championed by Robert Moses and Le Corbusier‘s Tower in the Parks. While we might be grateful that Geddes’ New York City of the future was never realized, it is hard not to moved by Geddes’ utopian vision and designs.
Some designs were more fantastical and wildly inventive, like those we feature in our column “The NYC That Never Was,” including this airline with 10 propellers, automated highways he called “Magic Motorways,” or a floating airport for Manhattan.
As per the MCNY website, the exhibit of “200 never-before-seen drawings, models, photographs and films of theater sets and costumes, housing projects and appliances, airplanes and automobiles, the exhibition underscores that Bel Geddes sought nothing less the transformation of American society through design.”
Norman Bel Geddes, “Motor Car No. 8,” ca. 1932
Prototype “Patriot” radio for Emerson
All images except noted from the Edith Lutyens and Normal Bel Geddes Foundation/Harry Ransom Center