‘Norman Bel Geddes Designs America’: An Exclusive Excerpt

The following is an adapted excerpt from Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, published by Abrams in conjunction with a major exhibition at UT’s Harry Ransom Center and the Museum of the City of New York.

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. A Promethean figure who was equally comfortable in the realms of fact and fantasy, Geddes was both a visionary and a pragmatist who had a significant role in shaping not only modern America, but also the nation’s image of itself as leading the way into the future.

He was a polymath who had no schooling or professional training in the activities he mastered, which included designing stage sets, costumes, and lighting; creating theater buildings, offices, nightclubs, and houses, as well as their furnishings, from vacuum cleaners to cocktail sets; and authoring oracular books and articles that landed him and his prophesies on the front page of newspapers across the country. To Americans between the world wars, he was nothing less than the “grand master of modernism,” the impresario who gave visual form to Aldous Huxley’s prophetic 1932 novel Brave New World.

Even his hobbies, according to one press account, showed “breath-taking originality and capacity for detail that forever astounds (sic) one.” For his own amusement, he made a film of insects mating and another in which, reportedly, ants reenacted the saga of Helen of Troy. He built a miniature golf course in his apartment before the sport became a national craze.He created war games that were played by as many as twenty-eight people over a vast model, and an electronic horse race game that attracted Manhattan’s elite to his apartment, where he kept a veritable zoo of pet monkeys.

Underlying Geddes’s amazing array of efforts were themes that can be traced throughout his career: his commitment to the power of unfettered imagination and the primacy of the individual, his fascination with nature as a model for imitation, and his belief in the possibility of a utopian future. And Geddes’ showmanship became his trademark.

As one of the twentieth century’s leading futurists, Geddes believed that a brighter tomorrow awaited Americans, and that it was just around the corner. He saw great differences between the quick tempo of the United States and the slower pace of Europe. In Europe, “dreams take centuries,” Geddes recounted in his autobiography, Miracle in the Evening (1960), where he describes the experience of seeing the French medieval monastery Mont-Saint-Michel.

Not so in America: “It happens that the United States has seized upon more of the fruits of industrialism than any other nation,” he wrote in Horizons. “We have gone further and more swiftly than any other. To what end?”

While Geddes answered the question of what the future would bring in many forms—his visionary articles boasted titles like “Dreamlining Tomorrow” and “Ten Years from Now”—his most notable effort was his Futurama display for the General Motors “Highways and Horizons” exhibition at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair, which adopted the motto “I Have Seen the Future.” Futurama’s giant model of America in 1960, complete with glass-clad skyscrapers and multilevel superhighways, gave Depression-era Americans genuine hope for a better future within their lifetimes.

It was 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. Today, as seen in the “retro-futurist” looks of theme parks, animated television programs, and popular novels, Geddes’ vision of the future continues to shape and inspire the twenty-first-century American imagination.

The Harry Ransom Center’s latest exhibit enlivens the life and career of Bel Geddes. From revolving restaurants to advanced highway systems, his visions of the future were surprisingly spot-on. See what he got right—and what he didn’t.

Archival photos from the Edith Lutyens and Norman Bel Geddes Foundation. Courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.


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