Art Works Blog

Designing the Future

Norman Bel Geddes perhaps isn’t the best embodiment of the NEA’s notion of creative placemaking. Rather than communities centered on art, the designer envisioned a world centered on the automobile, filled with expressways, multi-tiered bridges, and parking lots as far as the eye could see, all with an eye toward increased speed and efficiency. He brought this vision to life in one of his best known projects: the immersive exhibit Futurama, which conceptualized a 1960s metropolis and was designed for the General Motors Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair. While it might not represent the same ideals typical of the 2014 Our Town grant projects, which were announced this week, Futurama does align with one major principle of creative placemaking: the conviction that design can directly influence and benefit day-to-day life.

“He believed in the power of art and design to improve people's lives, and the power of art and design to define the modern world,” said Silvia Barisione, a curator at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University, a participating Blue Star Museum. Now through September 28, the Wolfsonian is hosting the traveling exhibit I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America, the first full retrospective of Bel Geddes’s work.

The exhibit showcases roughly 200 objects, which portray the visionary’s full breadth as an industrial designer, set designer, costume designer, urban planner, and would-be architect (though he designed buildings, he never received his full architectural license). Though his interests were vast and varied, Bel Geddes maintained a streamlined, highly modernist aesthetic throughout, giving sleek, curvaceous lines to everything from seltzer bottles and his iconic Patriot radio to never-realized automobiles and ocean liners. It was a futurist sensibility for Bel Geddes’s anticipated utopia, which perhaps appealed to consumers beyond visual beauty as they suffered through the war and economic troubles of the 1930s and 40s. “He was really a very future-oriented designer,” said Barisione. “He tried to give to Depression-era America a kind of optimistic vision for the future.”

Although not as idyllic as he once envisioned, Bel Geddes’s highway superland was prophetic: for better or worse, we have become a car culture. His pioneering emphasis on streamlined design is also enjoying its moment in the sun, touching everything from Apple products and luxury vehicles to systems maps. Given his influence and scope, the time seemed ripe for a retrospective, and will hopefully bring renewed interest in a man whom Barisione called “a national hero for industrial design.” “He was really a daring designer,” Barisione said. “He was visionary.”

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