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From the 1920s through the 1950s, two individuals, Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes, did more, by far, to create the image of “America” and make it synonymous with modernity than any of their contemporaries. Urban and Bel Geddes were leading Broadway stage designers and directors who turned their prodigious talents to other projects, becoming mavericks first in industrial design and then in commercial design, fashion, architecture, and more. The two men gave shape to the most quintessential symbols of the ...
From the 1920s through the 1950s, two individuals, Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes, did more, by far, to create the image of “America” and make it synonymous with modernity than any of their contemporaries. Urban and Bel Geddes were leading Broadway stage designers and directors who turned their prodigious talents to other projects, becoming mavericks first in industrial design and then in commercial design, fashion, architecture, and more. The two men gave shape to the most quintessential symbols of the modern American lifestyle, including movies, cars, department stores, and nightclubs, along with private homes, kitchens, stoves, fridges, magazines, and numerous household furnishings.
Illustrated with more than 130 photographs of their influential designs, this book tells the engrossing story of Urban and Bel Geddes. Christopher Innes shows how these two men with a background in theater lent dramatic flair to everything they designed and how this theatricality gave the distinctive modernity they created such wide appeal. If the American lifestyle has been much imitated across the globe over the past fifty years, says Innes, it is due in large measure to the designs of Urban and Bel Geddes. Together they were responsible for creating what has been called the “Golden Age” of American culture.
FROM THE BEGINNING, THE "style" of twentieth-century America was deliberately designed, and created by specific individuals. The particular cultural shift we are following, which emerged through the 1920s and 1930s and has since been widely copied around the world, marks the start of industrial design in a modern sense. Perhaps surprisingly, too, this type of design came out of theater. In fact, the magic of the stage turns out to be crucial to its development, since the 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.
The objects and styles-from white kitchens to the Walkman, the modern shopping mall to the prototype of the iPod-created by these individuals, or by their descendants in the industrial process, surround us still and continue to condition the way we live. Today we hardly notice their dramatic quality, and they no longer seem novel-except perhaps when highlighted, as in the current vogue for retro-styled cars. But looking back at the lives of the people who did the most to bring thisabout, we see their legacy nearly everywhere in the world around us. Although many hands were at work, two extraordinary people stand out in shaping the physical spaces and objects of American culture, and making it synonymous with "modernity": Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes. First on the scene, they were instrumental in defining what the founder of Time magazine, Henry Luce, famously labeled "the American Century."
Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes both worked in opera and on Broadway, directing and designing several shows a year through the 1920s and into the 1930s. But between these shows, each designed all sorts of other things, from fashion fabrics and costume jewelry to shopping centers and office buildings. They touched every aspect of people's existence-in particular the most obvious symbols of modern life: cars, houses and hotels, kitchens, and household furnishings.
With increasing enthusiasm during the 1920s, even with desperation in the Depression years, Americans searched for a "real" national identity aligned with the modern world. Popular catchphrases of the 1930s were "the American dream"(by no means ironic when first coined in 1931) and "the American way of life" (which had become so standard by 1939 that George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart used it as the title for one of their Broadway comedies). It was Urban, followed by Bel Geddes, who largely defined what that dream, "the American way of life," looked like.
Above all, they were both visionaries. Coming from old-world Europe and looking at America with fresh eyes, Urban was struck by the new conditions he saw around him. He saw that the modern world, emerging so energetically and chaotically in this young and bustling nation, needed its own mode of expression. In his view, the traditional styles, which were still being applied haphazardly across America, would not do. Nor would the new European design principles, whether Art Nouveau from the turn of the century, or the type of Art Deco that reached its most triumphant expression in the 1925 Paris Exhibition, or the mechanistic geometry of the German Bauhaus. None of these reflected the American experience. Urban set out to create designs that would. The New Yorker pointed out that the modern style of "textiles, candy boxes, type fonts, and ... modern furniture are traceable," quite specifically, "to Joseph Urban." The same article underlined the importance of theater to the development of modern design, remarking that "a number of American artists, many of them stage designers like Urban took up the work, and a piano by Lee Simonson, a bed by Norman Bel Geddes, silks by Robert Edmond Jones were made." The result of their efforts, as Urban's colleague Paul Frankel wrote just three years after that Paris Exhibition, was that "Modernity and America have in fact come to mean, in the mind of the world, one and the same thing."
Bel Geddes, twenty-one years younger, was homegrown and, though too independent in his views to work closely with any other designer, owed much to Urban's vision. He was to some extent a protégé of Urban's, as well as being a competitor. One of his first jobs in the theater was as an assistant to Robert Edmond Jones, helping with the set and costumes for a pageant Urban directed in New York. Then, in the early 1920s when Ma Reinhardt was searching for a designer to mount his production of The Miracle in New York, it was through Urban that Bel Geddes met Reinhardt. The Miracle, his very first major commission, made Bel Geddes a major player on Broadway overnight; and even though Urban (who knew Reinhardt well) was upset to be passed over in favor of the younger man, he willingly helped with the set design when Bel Geddes requested assistance. He also employed Bel Geddes to design part of a club he was building in Palm Beach. And shortly before Urban's sudden death in 1933, Bel Geddes collaborated with him on the Chicago World's Fair. He undoubtedly absorbed a great deal from Urban, and they shared many of the same design principles. Even more uncompromisingly modernistic in his vision, Bel Geddes took up where Urban left off, almost single-handedly creating the entire style of streamlining that became so characteristic of modernistic American design.
Today their names may be almost unknown. But at the time their impact was obvious enough: as a news headline pointed out in 1948, "EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK NOW YOU'LL FIND GEDDES WORK," which "can be seen in every home." And the stylistic concept created by Urban and Bel Geddes influenced other designers in all fields. Through the extraordinary range of the everyday articles, even more so than the public projects they designed, Urban and Bel Geddes shaped the daily environment of the 1930s. They did more than anyone else to create what has been called the golden age of American culture in the 1940s and 1950s, when everything came together in a coherent and identifiable American style.
During the 1920s and on into the 1940s, people in New York, Chicago, or Florida were increasingly likely to go through their lives surrounded by objects Urban or Bel Geddes had created and in décor inspired by them. By the 1950s some people even lived in communities planned by one of them, or in cities where redevelopment was inspired by his ideas. The reach of their influence can be seen in an average day of an American, particularly one living in or around New York, the center of Urban and Bel Geddes' operations, which in part helped to make the city the national leader of fashion for those decades.
He or she-call them Joe and Josephine (to borrow the names another designer, Henry Dreyfuss, gave to the "standard" American couple for his time-and-motion studies)-might well have woken up looking at curtains and wallpaper with Urban's patterns on them, in a bed designed by him, or later in one by Bel Geddes, who also created the styling of the radios that more than half the American population turned on to catch the daily news. This individual would probably then take breakfast from a refrigerator, cook it on a stove or in a toaster, and eat it sitting on a chair at a table in a type of kitchen (the ubiquitous white kitchen), all designed by Bel Geddes. Joe could well have driven to work in a Cadillac styled by Urban, or in a Chrysler, Buick, or Frazer-Nash manufactured to Bel Geddes' design, along a motorway (Bel Geddes' term) constructed according to his plans, to a New York office that either Urban or Bel Geddes could have designed. There, Joe or a secretarial Josephine might well work at an IBM typewriter designed by Bel Geddes, quite possibly sitting at a workstation of his design (or if higher up the office scale, Joe might be behind one of Urban's desks). In their lunch break they might snack on biscuits packaged by Urban and buy a Coke from the dispensing machine Bel Geddes had designed.
Josephine, meanwhile, might be attracted to a Fifth Avenue shop window display by Bel Geddes, then walk into a store decorated by Urban, to buy products of their design. Or she might drop in to an exhibition of their work at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, or a Fifth Avenue gallery run by Urban himself. (This phenomenon was not restricted to New York, for their merchandise was sold or exhibited all over the country.)
In the evening, dressed in fashionable clothes inspired by Urban and made of silk with his patterns on it, Josephine might well have gone out with Joe to eat in one of the restaurants Urban had designed. Then, if they were a New York couple, it was on to one of the immensely popular shows staged by Urban or Bel Geddes, or (in the 1920s, at least) one of their films in a theater decorated and perhaps even built by one of them, winding up in a nightclub or dance-hall designed by them as well, to be entertained by one of their cabarets and impressed by their costumes and scenery.
Joe and Josephine's wealthier East Coast cousins would almost certainly have attended a ball with décor by Urban, and might well have lived in or visited a grand house he designed and built, or stayed in one of the hotels Urban or Bel Geddes decorated. When Josephine glanced through a glossy magazine, it was likely that the layout was by Bel Geddes; and Joe may have studied at Urban's New School in New York, or played tennis and swum in a club designed by Urban. Then, if Joe happened to be one of the New York smart set, his favorite meeting place might be the Casino that Urban renovated in Central Park.
Bel Geddes and Urban did not cater just to the upper crust, however. Salesmen from all over the country might gather in a convention hall decorated by Urban, while a worker could be employed at a factory that Bel Geddes had designed, in an industrial park he had laid out, manufacturing objects also designed by him. Housewives across the country who went grocery shopping might well have their produce weighed on shop scales styled by Bel Geddes. Before Disney, children could play at a fantasy theme park created by Urban (the prototype for Sleeping Beauty's castle). Later on, when the combined Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus tried to revive its fortunes by developing a new, contemporary image, the big top, the parade, all the costumes, and some of the acts (as well as the animal cages and even the mechanics of transporting "The Greatest Show on Earth" by rail) had been designed by Bel Geddes.
In short, between them, Urban and Bel Geddes were personally responsible for an overwhelming amount of the physical ambience of America, from which cultural attitudes flowed, at a crucial time in the development of modern society. And among the other designers who followed them, working in exactly the same style, was Henry Dreyfuss, who also came through the Broadway theater. Dreyfuss, who took a design course taught by Bel Geddes and also designed several popular Broadway shows at the end of the 1920s, went on to determine the shape of the Bell telephones in every North American house, the most popular kind of alarm clocks, the interiors of the railway cars most long-distance travelers sat in as well as the streamlined body of the engines that pulled the trains, and the majority of the gas stations where people filled their cars-even the strategy room used by the Joint Chiefs in Washington during World War II. Similarly, Raymond Loewy, who started of in the mid-1920s with fashion illustrations for women's journals (as Bel Geddes himself had done just a few years earlier), continued the modern style created by Urban and Bel Geddes. The competing stoves and refrigerators Loewy designed are indistinguishable from those first created by Bel Geddes; the railway engines he designed directly follow Bel Geddes' principles, as does his trademark Studebaker Avanti, which drew crowds in the streets when it appeared in the 1960s, and the interiors of the space shuttle and Skylab, which were also Loewy's work. Some of these designers are still fairly well known, particularly Loewy, who lived thirty years longer than Bel Geddes and remained active into the 1980s. And as a result of this longevity Loewy has been credited with much that Bel Geddes introduced.
Designers are relentless self-promoters-it's the nature of the profession-and in the battle of egos those who live longest win out. But even when Urban and Bel Geddes' influence was most extensive, almost all the objects or places they designed were known solely by their manufacturers or owners: Standard Gas stoves and GE refrigerators, Chrysler cars, the Coca-Cola vending machine; the Bedell Store on 34th Street, New York, and Franklin Simon on Fifth Avenue; Mallin and Simmons furniture; the Park Avenue Restaurant and the New York Plaza Hotel; the Ziegfeld Theatre, the New School for Social Research, and the Cosmopolitan movie house. Urban and Bel Geddes helped to introduce brand recognition, being responsible for familiar logos like Goodyear Tires and Coca-Cola. But since this was before the era of Calvin Klein and personalized brand names, they were not able to attach a logo of their own to industrial designs or consumer products.
In addition, their versatility-which made possible such a wide influence that they could shape an entire lifestyle-meant that neither designer established a leading reputation in any single field outside the theater. For example, even though at the time other architects admired Urban's buildings, he is not mentioned in histories of modern architecture. Such books tend to deal with those whose careers were dedicated solely to architecture and who made a more obvious mark in this field because (in contrast to Urban) they designed little else. Similarly, Bel Geddes completely changed the way American cars looked, yet because he worked on cars only part-time, the credit goes to automotive executives who headed the styling divisions in Detroit.
If their contribution has mainly been forgotten, in a sense this may be a measure of their success. Paradoxically, precisely because the style and objects Urban and Bel Geddes created have become so ubiquitous, no association with their names remains.
The twentieth century did turn out to be the American century, a truly remarkable cultural shift. In 1900, when people around the world grew more affluent and wanted models for a new way of living, they had looked to Britain or France. This was equally true of Americans, and the "White City" constructed for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago copied the Beau Arts design popular in Paris. By contrast, for the last half of the twentieth century, the American lifestyle has been imitated everywhere across the globe and is identified with being "modern."
Over the first decade of the twentieth century Art Nouveau was the style of the age-again derived from France although some of its leaders were American, in particular Louis Comfort Tiffany and Louis Sullivan. The characteristic Art Nouveau signature motif is an elongated "whiplash" curve, like the tendril of some exotic plant. Its dynamic line, which represents organic growth, was carried through into stylized forms taken directly from nature: Tiffany's stained-glass lamps portraying dragonflies and flower-engraved vases, grapevine or seaweed necklaces, enameled trays with the shape of lily pads-or the leaf-like openings around doorways or windows, as in Sullivan's main entry for the Schlesinger and Mayer department store (now Carson Pirie Scott).
In many ways Art Nouveau was the first concerted attempt to express a specifically modern perception of life, and Joseph Urban's designs echo its sensuous, sinuously flowing lines, while the same dynamism and the shapes derived from nature (though far more simplified and abstract) carried over into Bel Geddes' streamlining, which became characteristic of American modernism. At the same time, even though it decorated biscuit tins, billboard posters, public buildings, and entries to the Paris metro as well as lamp shades, restaurant menus, and beer mats, Art Nouveau remained an almost exclusively aesthetic movement. It never freed itself from the ateliers of the art world where it was born. Then too, there is a hothouse quality everywhere in Art Nouveau that Urban largely left behind when he came to America and is completely absent from the work of Bel Geddes.
Excerpted from DESIGNING MODERN AMERICA by Christopher Innes Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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