- Designing Modern America: Broadway to Main Street
Designing Modern America: Broadway to Main Street argues that the central features of modern American design – from urban planning to fabric patterns – emerged from the theatrical imaginations of two highly productive designers, Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes. 'From the beginning,' the book opens, 'the "style" of twentieth-century America was deliberately designed, and created by specific individuals ... [T]he people who led the way in consciously designing a new lifestyle for America made their reputations on Broadway and carried its theatricality over into everything they did.' This beautifully designed volume then goes on to show, in abundant detail, the extraordinary influence Urban and Bel Geddes had on numerous aspects of modern American material culture. Chapters on stage design and theatre architecture ground the two designers in their home territory – which ranged from the Ziegfeld Follies to the Metropolitan Opera. Then the narrative broadens to show the impact of Urban's and Bel Geddes's work on countless aspects of American culture. They designed common vehicles including cars, airplanes, and cruise ships. Bel Geddes, for example, designed both the Chrysler Airflow and the 1941 Nash. They worked on urban planning, skyscrapers, and [End Page 534] suburban developments; Urban designed the New School for Social Research, among others, while Bel Geddes developed prefabricated housing for middle-class families. They were likewise instrumental in product design, treating department store windows and amusement parks as stage sets, and reimagining refrigerators (Bel Geddes designed the 1935 Electrolux and the 1939 Frigidaire), stoves, vending machines (for Coca-Cola), and display advertising (for Shell Oil). Indeed, the wealth of data in the book, and the profusion of engaging images, compellingly demonstrates the remarkable force of these particular individuals on the aesthetic landscape of twentieth-century America.
The second argument – that this force was inherently theatrical – is also convincing, although the book oddly tends to underplay the overwhelming theatricality of American culture by focusing almost exclusively on concrete instances in which 'real life' overtly copies the stage (as in the desire of society ladies to have gowns like the ones they see on Ziegfeld stars or homes like the ones they see in Hollywood movies). The book omits any sustained discussion of the theoretical or historical context for the theatricality of American culture, and this lapse leads to a number of points in which the argument feels forced or speculative (for example, Innes argues rather unconvincingly for Bel Geddes's influence on the work of urban planner Robert Moses). More extensive discussions about theatricality and the ways in which it operates beyond the literal stage would have made these speculative leaps unnecessary and would have considerably strengthened the overarching argument about Urban and Bel Geddes. As it stands, the narrative of Designing Modern America operates almost entirely outside of the voluminous scholarship of the past thirty years on American material and consumer culture. This works against the power of the material collected here, as much of the excellent scholarship in this area would have helped to contextualize and illuminate the significance of Bel Geddes's and Urban's contributions for both theatre and cultural history. (Alan Trachtenberg's Incorporation of America and Jackson Lears's Fables of Abundance are two examples of works that cover much of the same historical ground but are missing from this study.) Nonetheless, Designing Modern America makes available crucial information about the powerful influence of two men of the theatre on the twentieth-century American way of life.
Andrea Most, Department of English, University of Toronto