Artist Name


birth4/27/1893 in Adrian, MichiganPicture of Norman Bel Geddes
death5/8/1958 in New York, NY
parentsClifton Terry Geddes and Flora Luelle Yingling
educationCleveland School of Art
awards

Norman Bel Geddes was born Norman Melancton Geddes in Adrian, Michigan in 1893. His family was financially struggling and, while he had a talent for drawing and theater, he had no money and little patience for school. He finished just one year of high school and a few months at the Cleveland School of Art.

His career began with set design for Aline Barnsdall's Los Angeles Little Theater in the 1916-17 season. This is also the year he married Helen Bel Schneider and incorporated the "Belle" into his own name in the form of "Norman-Bel Geddes." After his divorce in 1932 he dropped the hyphen but retained the "Bel."

His set design career flourished first in Los Angeles, then on Broadway. He created hundreds of sets, not all of which were produced, and gained a reputation as the "Leonardo of our Theater."

By 1927 he was ready for a different kind of work and opened an industrial-design studio. He designed a wide range of commercial products, from cocktail shakers to commemorative medallions, to radio cabinets. His designs extended to unrealized futuristic concepts: a teardrop-shaped automobile, and an Art Deco House of Tomorrow. In 1929, he designed "Airliner Number 4," a 9-deck amphibian airliner that incorporated areas for deck-games, an orchestra, a gymnasium, a solarium, and two airplane hangars.

Geddes is probably best known for the work he did for General Motors in the 1930s. In 1933 he designed the iconic 25th Anniversary medal and in 1939 his Futurama exhibit in the GM pavilion at the New York World's Fair. Inside the Geddes-designed pavilion, 27,500 visitors a day rode in two-person car-capsules on a 16-minute tour of Geddes's streamlined vision for America circa 1960. Displayed in meticulously detailed and animated dioramas of cities and landscapes, Futurama offered up a country with a highly evolved traffic and superhighway system. Futurama was a tremendous success and led to national exposure for Geddes. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Geddes to help plan an interstate highway system.

His popularity had already been the topic of a joke much earlier. In a New Yorker cartoon from 1932, a group of businessmes sit around a conference table. One of the men says:

"Gentlemen, I am convinced that our next new biscuit should be styled by Norman Bel Geddes."

By the early 1940s Geddes was ubiquitous and his ideas became larger and ever more elaborate and less feasible. Fortune magazine derided Geddes as "a bomb thrower" whose ideas "cost American businessmen billions of dollars." The lack of feasibility finally caused his influence to wane.

Over the course of his life, Geddes was married four times. After the divorce from Helen Belle Sneider he married Frances Resor Waite in 1933. After her death in 1943 he married Anne Howe Hilliard in 1944 but divorced her in 1951. He married his final wife, Edith Lutyens, in 1953.

Geddes died on May 8, 1958 in New York City. He was survived by his daughters, actress Barbara Bel Geddes and author Joan Bel Geddes Ulanov, both from his first marriage, as well as by his final wife. His autobiography "Miracle in the Evening" was published posthumously in 1960.

Sourced from Wikipedia and the sources listed in the Resources section.

You can click medals to switch between obverse and reverse sides.

  • General Motors - 25th Anniversary1933
    by Norman Bel Geddes
    GM-1.1
    Silver-plated bronze (76mm)
    GM-1.2
    Silver-plated bronze (76mm)
    GM-1.3
    Golden Bronze with olive patina (76mm)
    GM-1.4
    Golden Bronze (76mm)
    GM-1.6
    Silver-plated bronze (29mm)

    The obverse bears a streamlined car with stylized wing extending vertically up. Top right and bottom left, TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF - MOTOR TRANSPORTATION; signed under car, NORMAN BEL GEDDES © 1933. The reverse bears a stylized piston and laurels. Around in four quadrants, COMMEMORATING / THE TWENTYFIFTH - ANNIVERSARY OF / GENERAL MOTORS - 1908 - 1933.

    This iconic machine-age medal is a perfect example of the Streamlined style that dominated architecture and design in America from the late 1920s to the end of the 1930s. It was designed by Norman Bel Geddes but sculpted by Rene Paul Chambellan. Its main variant was commissioned by General Motors to be distributed during its 25th Anniversary celebrations and at the 1933 Chicago World Fair of Progress.

    The General Motors romance brochure that accompanied some medals included the following words about the design:

    "The face of the medal shows a speeding automotive body behind which a wing rises perpendicularly. Since the medal is to be used as an award in future years and the car of the future is merely a guess, this car is an abstract streamline form without doors or windows. The conventionalized wing symbolizes General Motors interest in air transportation. The wing being static; the car, by contrast, seems to move more swiftly ... The reverse of the medal shows a combustion chamber ... since it is the heart of the motor. It too has been conventionalized."

    The medal was manufactured in different variants. The relatively common ones measure 76mm in diameter and are struck in bronze or silver-plated bronze. The large silver-plated medal is the most common variant. The bronze and the smaller 38mm and 29mm variants are much less common. The smallest was inscribed across the reverse G.M. - MENS / CLUB and only given to GM executives. In the thirties it was of course a fairly safe bet that executive positions would be limited to men. A mounted plaque version measuring 9 inches in diameter was given to some dealers in the 1950s.

    Completely intact silver-plated variants are hard to come by; the silver layer did not stand the test of time on most pieces and it is almost unheard of to see one without at least rubbing on high points.

    Just as the design is unmistakably Bel Geddes, the execution is unmistakably Chambellan. Before I knew that it was a Bel Geddes, I would have guessed it to be a Chambellan based on its lettering alone.

    The medal was struck by the Medallic Art Company of New York.

    All that being said, prices for this medal vary even more widely based on quality and venue. Small antiques boutiques frequently offer the 76mm silver-plated pieces at prices over $2,000. Of course I do not know what prices are actually realized. On eBay, the 76mm medals frequently trade between $800 and $1,500 and I have not yet seen the smaller ones come up there.

    GM-1.1
    Silver-plated bronze
    76mm (3in)
    GM-1.2
    Silver-plated bronze
    76mm (3in)
    MEDALLIC ART CO N.Y.
    GM-1.3
    Bronze
    76mm (3in)
    Golden bronze with olive patina
    GM-1.4
    Bronze
    76mm (3in)
    Golden bronze
    © MEDALLIC ART CO N.Y. - BRONZE
    GM-1.5
    Silver-plated bronze
    38mm (1.5in)
    unknown
    unknown
    GM-1.6
    Silver-plated bronze
    29mm (1.14in)
  • Cocktail Set (1937)

    Cocktail Set (1937)

    The Chrome-plated metal cocktail set is from an edition of eight that Geddes designed in 1937. The style is typical of Norman Bel Geddes' machine-age designs in its geometric precision and simplicity of form.

    The set is owned by the Brooklyn Museum in New York City.

    The original unscaled version of this image can be found here.

  • Futurama - Street Intersection (1939)

    Futurama Street Intersection (1939)

    Futurama was a Norman Bel Geddes-designed exhibit/ride in the General Motors pavilion of the 1939 New York World's Fair. More than 30,000 people a day braved long lines until they reached the chairs that transported them through the exhibit. It was by far the most successful exhibit of the entire fair. On one independent survey of 1,000 fairgoers, Futurama was awarded 39.4 points. The next most popular exhibit, Ford's, received 8.5 points.

    Futurama resonated well with both the fair's overall theme "The World of Tomorrow" and the American people's desires. Technology was seen as a way out of the misery of the Great Depression. A vision that promised an ordered world of plenty was very welcome and people did not ask questions about the ecological or societal impact of cars and superhighways everywhere.

    The original unscaled version of this image can be found here.



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Books

Research Archives and Websites

Future Perfect
A September 10, 2012, Wall Street Journal article by Anne S. Lewis about an exhibit named "I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America."
Future Perfect
A Deccember 21, 2013, Boston Globe article by Mark Feeney about the same exhibit.
Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers
Link to University of Texas' Research section on Bel Geddes.

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