The Harry Ransom Center was honored this week by the Austin Critics’ Table Awards in the categories “Museum Exhibition” for I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America and “Touring Show, Art” for Arnold Newman: Masterclass. For more than 20 years, the Austin Critics’ Table Awards have celebrated achievement in the arts disciplines. An informal group of critics annually recognize Austin’s art successes, ranging from visual art to theater.
Norman Bel Geddes
For Macy’s third annual parade in 1926, Norman Bel Geddes produced seven posters that now reside in the Ransom Center’s archive. Learn about the efforts of Ransom Center conservators to repair and frame one of the posters for the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America. The project was funded by a Tru Vue Optium® Conservation Grant from The Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators.
This image of a streamlined car is the product of designer Norman Bel Geddes, who gained fame during the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s for a broad range of designs. He received his start in New York designing theatrical sets in which he emphasized the use of lighting to set mood as well as provide illumination. He also designed film sets in Hollywood, including some for director Cecil B. DeMille.
Bel Geddes’s design ideas embraced all of modern life. Motorcar Number 9 provides an example of his interest in streamlining. In many ways this car is different from any built at that time or later. It offered excellent visibility through the use of curved glass for the windshield and windows. The steering wheel and single headlight were in the center. The car featured a vertical stabilizer, or rudder, in its tail, like an airplane. The front and rear bumpers were made of chrome, and the rear bumper was attached by three hydraulic shock absorbers. This design offered good use of interior space, providing seating for eight.
This image comes from a time when streamlining was thought to be the wave of the future. In 1931 Bel Geddes described a “House of Tomorrow” that set the stage for architectural streamlining focused on clean and uncluttered lines. He then incorporated the same concept in his design for a “City of Tomorrow,” which became the basis for the hugely popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.
Bel Geddes’s ideas have made great contributions to modern design, particularly in the field of transportation. He designed trains, ocean liners, airplanes, cars, and even a flying car. On the exterior, they achieved streamlining by means of a teardrop shape. In the interior, equal attention was given to the use of space, designed to provide large capacities and unique functions. His airliner, for instance, had decks that featured a gymnasium, a solarium, and even areas for deck games. He also designed the interior of the Pan American China Clipper airliner, which featured a central lounge wider than a Pullman club car and was fitted with broad armchairs. These ideas are still visible today—just look at the streamlined vehicles on the animated show Futurama, which borrowed its name from Bel Geddes.
The Ransom Center’s extensive Norman Bel Geddes archive includes a model of Motorcar Number 9, along with other designs, models, and papers that span over 50 years.
Ransom Center volunteer Ray McLeod wrote this post.
By the time Norman Bel Geddes began work on a contentious adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet in 1931, he was considered an established theatrical designer and a pioneer of the New Stagecraft movement in America. Collaborating with literary advisor Clayton Hamilton, Bel Geddes abridged the play in order to communicate Shakespeare’s text through the characters’ actions, rather than rely on realistic backdrops or extended soliloquies. In addition to marking Raymond Massey’s American theater debut, the production of Hamlet served as the subject of Bel Geddes’s own amateur documentary film.
Throughout his career, Norman Bel Geddes filmed the genesis of his design projects to record each stage of the creative process. Bel Geddes also used film to produce amateur motion pictures on subjects such as insect behavior and ones in which he portrays an imaginary naturalist named Rollo.
Of the major American productions of Hamlet in 1931, critics deemed Bel Geddes’s version the most radical. Serving as both designer and director, Bel Geddes sought to transform the classical literary piece into a modernized, emotionally charged, melodramatic production. Bel Geddes’s controversial Hamlet elicited outcries from many Shakespearean enthusiasts who found Bel Geddes’s experimentation distasteful. Bel Geddes’s aim, however, was not to recreate a traditional depiction of the Shakespearean tragedy but instead, to “produce upon a modern audience an emotional response as similar as possible to that which Shakespeare produced upon his Elizabethan audience.”
Although Bel Geddes had experimented with powerful bursts of focused colored lighting in earlier productions such as The Miracle, his lighting innovations in Hamlet eclipsed all previous techniques. Highly concentrated light illuminated actors on one raised platform, while stagehands worked in darkness to prepare other scenes on adjacent platforms. A technologic innovation in 1931, the sharply focused light contributed to Bel Geddes’s vision of an updated and modernized Hamlet.
Bel Geddes developed a spatial arrangement that aligned with the characters’ actions rather than the traditional patterns of movement. Specifically, he positioned steps and platforms diagonally on stage at New York’s Broadhurst Theater. The austere, architectural set and minimalist style of the geometric blocks fostered dynamic movement on the stage, and the production adopted a swift, cinematic pace.
Hamlet is one of the few filmed theater productions that survives in Bel Geddes’s archive. The 16-millimeter black and white footage shown here is an excerpt from an hour-long amateur documentary in which Bel Geddes captures every phase of the development of Hamlet—from the creation of models and action charts, to rehearsals, and opening night. The Hamlet documentary, which offers a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into the inner workings of 1930s theater productions and of Bel Geddes’s creative process, is one of over 300 short films by Norman Bel Geddes housed in the Ransom Center’s moving image archives.
Because Bel Geddes filmed Hamlet with two different types of 16-millimeter film—reversal film and negative film—on the same reel, the film deteriorated at different rates, causing preservation difficulties. The digitization of Bel Geddes’s films was made possible by grant support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Learn more about Bel Geddes in the Ransom Center’s exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, on display through today.
Scott Lauffer, an Industrial Design Director at Dell’s Enterprise Product Group, recently visited the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America with a group of colleagues, primarily industrial designers and engineers. The group takes occasional offsite visits to find inspiration. This is the third visit the group made to the Ransom Center over the past few years. Lauffer shares his observations from the visit.
As designers I think we all drew inspiration from the versatility that Norman Bel Geddes displayed not only in the types of work that he consulted on, but the salesmanship he exhibited to convince many of his clients to invest in creating better human experiences in a time before it was expected and demanded by consumers. His background in theater probably served him well in being a better storyteller for his vision. His approach for researching and understanding human behavior along with model building and storytelling are all techniques that we draw on heavily as designers today.
It was interesting to see how Bel Geddes not only influenced our group’s profession of industrial design, but also our industry, albeit indirectly. Elliot Noyes, who founded the Industrial Design program for IBM and pioneered the corporate design discipline in 1956, was previously employed by Bel Geddes. We later discovered there were only three degrees of separation for some of us: Bel Geddes to Elliot Noyes to Tom Hardy, with whom some of us previously worked in his capacity as design director at IBM.
The exhibition was crafted to educate a wide audience through thoughtfully selected examples that represent the breadth of Bel Geddes’s work, without overwhelming. The courage Bel Geddes showed in proposing the visionary and using this to stretch the imagination of his clients is inspirational.
The exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America runs through January 6, 2013, and explores the life and career of American stage and industrial designer, futurist, and urban planner Norman Bel Geddes (1893–1958).
The Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and on Christmas Eve Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.
Gallery hours are Tuesday through Friday 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.
Docent-led gallery tours are also available.
More than 300 items in the exhibition reflect the broad range of Bel Geddes’s interests and work and demonstrate 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.
All but two loaned items in the exhibition come from the Norman Bel Geddes archive at the Ransom Center.