To Norman Bel Geddes, the world was just a big pile of Legos. Anything he wanted to make, he just made it.
He invented artistic stage lighting, using different intensities, colors, angles and shadow, when everyone else simply flooded the stage with light. He designed legendary sets on Broadway – a whole cathedral, for example – not on film, but on stage. He even did costumes. He designed both nightclubs and skyscrapers. He made films — including a reenactment of the Trojan War with insects as Greeks: actual bugs in tiny triremes. He designed planes, trains and automobiles. And ships. And refrigerators. He designed the first modern stoves, meaning the kind that come in a few related models, made with lightweight sheet metal instead of lumbar-crushing cast iron – and did this after being the first to go out and actually ask folks what they wanted in a stove. Just for fun, he built a scale horse race track in his basement, that was so detailed and realistic, it grew its own subculture of “horse” owners (the horses were die cast metal, who “raced” via a series of randomized, unseen pulleys and cables), odds betting, even journalism that covered the races. It got so popular and out-of-hand, he had to shut it down. His Futurama exhibit for GM at the 1939 New York World’s Fair was a bird’s eye view “flight” over a 1960 future America he had built (with the help of about 2000 workers) in miniature. (Here is a review of a retrospective of the exhibit.) The viewer would sit in an upholstered chair, with a perfectly synchronized audio narration in the chair, and be carried silently and smoothly over an envisioned future with new kinds of highways, cities and so forth – a bit like the part in the Peter Pan ride where you soar over London, but 16 years earlier. Yes, Walt Disney saw the exhibit – along with 27 million other people. He even redesigned a circus.
Of course he was ahead of his time; of course his ideas were too expensive, too ambitious, and sometimes too daring for people to embrace. Many designs got built, many didn’t. And while Norman Bel Geddes was busy working – which is about all he did – folks like Ray Loewy were busy designing new ways to take credit for work they didn’t do. (Szerlip savages Loewy, and it’s great.)
Szerlip also does a great job of balancing the good and bad with Bel Geddes, covering both the tender care of his ailing wife but also a few dalliances. She also paints a sympathetic portrait of a guy with such an appetite for creation that he often went off in pointless directions (the Trojan War with ants) when he could have designed something valuable or at least lucrative. It’s just who he was: a guy who loved making things. Put him on the list with Da Vinci, Verne, Disney and Steve Jobs — he’s somewhere in between all of them.