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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 193-245
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The Futurama Recontextualized:
Norman Bel Geddes's Eugenic "World of Tomorrow"
A man of great versatility and of
enormousdynamic qualities, Norman Bel Geddes has, through the medium of design found himself in the midst of innumerable vastly different fields, and in each one of them has left his mark of genius.
--Norman Bel Geddes, writing a press release about himself in 1939
edited by his secretary with the comment "too boastful." 1
As one of the most prominent U.S. designers during the 1930s, Norman Bel Geddes's high estimation of himself was well deserved. Already renowned in the 1920s for his founding contributions to the "new stagecraft" and for his numerous innovations in lighting, set, and theater design, he first entered the public spotlight as an industrial designer in 1928 when his window displays for the Franklin Simon Department Store in New York City literally stopped traffic. His futuristic predictions of the world "Ten Years from Now," as solicited and published in 1930 by the Ladies' Home Journal, gained him even wider acclaim as a leading visionary in touch with current social and technological trends. He consolidated his vision in his 1932 bestseller Horizons, which set the theoretical precedent for the concept of stream-lining and securely established the designer's role as an innovative shaper of the future manmade world. Yet none of these successes topped the popular triumph of his Futurama exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 [End Page 193] New York World's Fair, which catapulted him into the political arena as a consultant for the creation of the national interstate highway system. Hence his boastful press release praising his diverse contributions.
Bel Geddes's comment, however, belies more than a simple pride in his work. Numerous other self-written press releases in addition to books he owned and read reveal his deep-seated, long-standing desire to be considered a genius, to the extent that he consciously fashioned a modernist Renaissance-man persona for himself. Design historians thus far have furthered this characterization of Bel Geddes without understanding that his obsession with genius was only part of a much broader profound interest in evolution and eugenics. An examination of Bel Geddes's evolutionary beliefs is necessary not only because it clarifies his self-conception and his notion of progress, but also because it poses a fundamental reinterpretation of his most famous production, the Futurama. The Futurama was one of four exhibits he proposed for the New York World's Fair, two of which were never produced and have been consistently overlooked by cultural historians. 2 Yet the narrative revealed by these four, in addition to Bel Geddes's little probed acceptance of eugenics and belief in the fourth dimension as the evolution of consciousness, reveal the centrality of the goal of evolutionary progress to his vision of the future.
Beyond offering in-depth analysis of Bel Geddes's exhibits for the Fair, this discussion serves as a case study for ways that eugenic ideology infiltrated material culture during this era. I contend that eugenic thinking operated as a guiding framework within a certain cultural psyche without which the streamlined style in industrial and architectural design would not have resonated with such force nor have had such international appeal. Eugenicists adamantly rejected ugliness of the body as a sign of inner genetic deficiency and disease and demanded functional, hygienic, and physically fit bodies as the basis of a beautiful and healthy future race. So too did streamline industrial designers abhor the superficial ugliness, decoration and dirt-catching surfaces of pre-design-era products that seemingly masked inner corruption and functional impotence and contributed to an unsanitary germ-rich environment. Through their efforts which paralleled the goals of early eugenicists, designers began reshaping products from the inside out, creating at least in rhetoric functional forms with fit exteriors which honestly revealed the inner wholesomeness of the product.
This approach was not unique to streamlined design; rather, streamlining continued (in brasher, more popular and more...