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« Art and Entertainment, Or Maybe Art Vs. Entertainment | Main | To Affinity --- And Beyond!! »

February 04, 2007

YUP Hatches a Nope: Flawed Take on Norman Bel Geddes

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I like a lot of what Yale University Press publishes on art. For instance, their series of books on John Singer Sargent is wonderful (too bad I can't afford any).

Alas, even a high batting average includes misses along with the hits. And I say that YUP whiffed on this book: Designing Modern America:Broadway to Main Street by Christopher Innes, Canada Research Chair in Performance Culture at York University, Toronto.

If I understand Innes correctly, his thesis goes something like this: Now largely forgotten, Joseph Urban (1872-1933) and Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) were important shapers of modern American design, and their skill and success were related to their experience in theater-related design. The book is his attempt to demonstrate this, and I'm persuaded that the theatricality angle is interesting and doubtless an important factor in the architectural and design aspects of their careers.

I've always been fond of Urban's work and ought to set aside time to work up a Blowhards post about him. Briefly, he was an Austrian involved one of the 1900-vintage secession movements. He moved to America in the 1910s and had a successful career in several design-related fields before his death at age 61. A book providing good coverage of his career and work is here.

Besides his theater work, Norman Geddes (the "Bel" was an affectation he added to his name in recognition of this first wife) was a pioneer industrial designer and masterful self-publicist. For a brief biography, click here.

I believe Innes' book has two major flaws:

  1. In his drive to prove Geddes' originality and influence, Innes fails to place him in context. Previous and contemporary designs from others tend to be ignored.

  2. Innes lets too many errors slip in, casting doubt on the book's reliability.

In many cases there are near-errors or slightly misleading statements. In a discussion or urbanism (page 180) Innes states that "President Roosevelt's New Deal, announced in the 1932 election campaign, included the redevelopment of ninety-nine communities and ultimately led to new towns like Columbia, Maryland." I don't know about the 99 number, but it is true that Columbia, Maryland exists though it didn't get rolling until the mid-1960s. And it was a private -- not federal government -- undertaking. Innes would have been on firmer ground had he cited Greenbelt, Maryland -- a true New Deal style project. I'll cut Innes a little slack on this because he's originally from the UK.

On the following page he mentions Baron Haussmann and his "Parisian boulevards [that] converged on symbols of French national pride -- the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe"... I might be mistaken, but I don't know of any Haussmann boulevards going anywhere near the Eiffel Tower, let alone converging on it. (Besides, Haussmann was 20 years gone when the tower was built.)

It gets worse when the topic is automobiles. Geddes indeed prepared a series of designs for the Graham-Paige company in the late 20s that attempted to predict future automobile shapes. He also occasionally consulted other firms regarding body styles. But he never had a design enter production.

Innes goes wrong when he seemingly suggests (pages 160-3) that Geddes had a major hand in the design of the semi-streamlined Chrysler Airflow introduced for the 1934 model year. Other reputable sources (for instance, here and here) indicate that Geddes played a minor role, mostly related to publicity. Geddes later was involved with face-lift work that attempted (but failed) to halt the Airflow's downward sales spiral.

Bel Geddes Airflow Design.jpg
Chrysler Airflow model by Norman Bel Geddes
Image from "Designing Modern America" via Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and the Estate of Edith Lutyens Bel Geddes.

The photo on page 162 of Innes' book -- see above -- looks like it might be a facelift-study, even though it's labeled as a Geddes 1933 wind-tunnel model. And if the label is correct, then it was probably a proposal for an alternative front-end and fender treatment, not a totally original design. This is because the passenger compartment looks like the production version, suggesting that Geddes was dealing with cosmetic, rather than fundamental design factors, regardless of when the model was built.

Although Innes lauds Geddes' automobile streamlining work, no mention is made of previous efforts by Rumpler and Jaray. This gives the false impression that Geddes was there first.

Innes credits Geddes with design of the 1941 Nash (photo caption, page 164). But the authoritative book by Lamm and Holls (linked above) states: "Nash hired industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes in late1940 but let him go again in 1942 after using none of his ideas." And if Geddes was hired in late 1940, there was no way he could have influenced the design of the 1941 model car, production lead-times being what they are.

The chapter on urban design does not quite claim that Geddes was the first to deal with the problems of city center vehicle traffic -- Innes credits Geddes as being the first to integrate various existing concepts in his 1938 city of the future project for Shell Oil and the famous General Motors display in the 1939-40 New York World's Fair. Totally ignored are significant earlier studies by Harvey Wiley Corbett and Hugh Ferriss.

And so it goes. When Innes can't cite specific instances of Geddes' influence, he asserts that Geddes got there first, therefore anyone coming later must have been influenced by him. For example, on page 168 he writes:

Still, if any one person could be said to have determined the classic design of the American car, it is Bel Geddes. True, his patent for the rear-engined bubble-car of Futurama gathered dust in his files. But mock-ups for the "fish-tail" Cadillac of 1949, created by the General Motors styling studio, directly echoed Bel Geddes' designs.

By the time the GM styling model he cited was created, teardrop-shaped "cars of the future" had been a staple of styling studios and magazine covers for years. Whatever Geddes might has done to influence Harley Earl's stylists was tenuous and nearly impossible to trace.

Norman Bel Geddes was indeed an important figure in the history of 20th century American design. But Innes, in an overly-enthusiastic effort to make this case, winds up cheapening Geddes' image and actual accomplishments.

How did this get into print without greater scrutiny? Possibly lack of an editor familiar with the field, coupled with the reputation of the writer. Maybe it's part of general malaise in publishing; I've noticed a number of observations of late regarding editorial sloppiness.

Later,

Donald

posted by Donald at February 4, 2007




Comments

"Yale UP books on Sargent..too bad I can't afford any." -- Try Abebooks -- terrific bargains in _very_ good condition.

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy on February 4, 2007 11:02 PM



I'm a long-time, but only moderately knowledgeable, fan of Urban and Geddes (and theatrical design, in general), so it's interesting to hear about this book -- and nice to be forewarned about its significant errors. Thanks!

By the way, given your interest (which you wrote about previously) in the 1939-40 World's Fair, the next time you are in New York you might want to visit the Queens Museum, if you haven't been there already. Last Friday, I went to visit it for the first time in about 25 years in order to see an exhibit on Robert Moses. The Museum is located in what was the NYC Pavilion of both the 1939 and 1964 World's Fairs, and they have a modest-sized permanent exhibit that is about the two fairs. Plus their gift shop has books (and collectibles) for sale about the two world's fairs, including one book that was, I believe, the catalog to an exhibit they had a number of years ago (probably a larger version of the current exhibit?).

In addition, they have a gigantic scale model of NYC (now viewable from a glass-floored spiral ramp) that was a major feature of the 1964 exhibit (where it was then viewable, along with pre-recorded narration, from moving chairs -- a la GM's Futurama exhibit).

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on February 6, 2007 12:42 PM






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