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Friday, February 22, 2008

Norman Bel Geddes


Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) was a designer whose career spanned both the theatrical and industrial worlds in the inter-war years.


Norman Melancton Geddes was born in Adrian, Michigan, the son of a Pittsburgh stockbroker.




Art Institute of Chicago


He studied at Ohio's Cleveland Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago and began his career as a draftsman in Chicago and Detroit in 1913 and later worked as a scenic designer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His adopted name was an amalgamation of his and his wife's: Helen Belle Sneider.


Following his successful stint in New York he also designed film sets in Hollywood for Cecil B DeMille (Feet of Clay 1924) and DW Griffith (The Sorrows of Satan 1926) in Hollywood. Shortly afterwards, in 1927, he began his work in the industrial sphere for Ray Graham of Graham-Paige Motors company. This firm made cars up until the late forties. They then moved into the real estate business and bought Madison Square Garden before being absorbed by the Gulf & Western company. Bel Geddes designed a number of concept cars for Graham-Paige but none of them were actually built.

More importantly, in 1928 he was commisioned by the Simmons Company to design some bedroom furniture which was actually produced. His 1931 House of Tomorrow was featured in Ladies Home Journal and became a major force in the streamlining movement.



His work became increasingly conceptual and futuristic and he not only designed cars, trains, ships and aircraft but consumer products as well.




His Manhattan Skyscraper cocktail set (1936) is hugely sought after.


Big Train


Harley Earl was significantly influenced by Bel Geddes in his design for the Union Pacific M 10000 locomotive.



In the same year (1934) Bel Geddes designed the interior of the Pan Am China clipper flying boat.




His Oriole stove for the Standard Gas Equipment Company in 1936 set the model for all future kitchen stoves.






In 1937 he designed a model City of Tomorrow with expressways which featured in an advertisement for Shell.




He later expanded on this concept in a General Motors exhibit for the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Set in a future 1960, the motorways had more of an influence on post-war American freeway design than his teardrop shaped cars did.







Today, his cars and buses look gloriously dated whereas his cities still look remarkably contemporary.






His practice ran into financial trouble in the late forties and closed, leaving one of his last commissions to be completed by one of his former employees, Elliot Noyes: the IBM Model A electric typewriter of 1948.




One of his greatest designs was for the Airliner No. 4 but that extraordianary project deserves an entry of its own.



He was the father of actress Barbara Bel Geddes, best known for playing family matriarch Miss Ellie Ewing in the series Dallas (for which she was the first actor signed, in 1978). She also starred in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).





Bel Geddes influence is still seen today and Agent Triple P feels he should be better known. His book, Horizons, can sometimes be bought second hand, if you have an enormous amount of money!

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