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Back to the Future: Major Retrospective of Designer Norman Bel Geddes Opens

Artist, author, city planner, design star and futurist Norman Bel Geddes may not be a household name. But his retro-futuristic designs – most iconically captured in the “Futurama” exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – inspire an entire generation of artists, designers and filmmakers to this day.

I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America” is a sprawling exhibit opening at the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus today, charting Bel Geddes’ evolution for an Art Deco-inspired theater set designer to perhaps the most important futurist of his time.

“He is a man of all trades,” says Helen Baer, Associate Curator of Performing Arts at the Harry Ransom Center. “He can do theater design, industrial design; he also gets into city planning and urban planning later on in his life. And he is also a successful author. So he does a little bit of everything, and he’s for the most part self-taught."

Baer notes that after an impressive start with set design in the 1920s, Bel Geddes “starts getting interested in industrial design in ‘30s, and he starts looking at streamlining, especially, as something that’s good for objects and good for the home of the future.” The iconic finned motor cars that dot the exhibit are proof of that, an Art Deco-infused precursor to midcentury design’s embrace of the atomic age.  

The high point of Bel Geddes' career was undoubtedly the 1939 New York World’s Fair. “This makes him a star in the field, and everyone knows his name at this point,” Baer says. “But then, of course, the U.S. goes to war, and so all these grand ideas he had don’t really get to go into production.”

She says Bel Geddes boosted the war effort, doing some war modeling photography for Life magazine. He also returned to theater work, and branched out into master planning, resort planning and architecture, before dying in 1958 at the age of 65. “He does make the best of it. … But I’m sure he felt frustrated in that his biggest dreams, his big, big visions from the late ‘30s and ‘40s were not ever really put into practice.”

“It’s really exciting to get out this much material,” Baer says of the exhibit, practically the entirety of which resides at the Ransom Center. “It’s a really large collection; there’s something like eight or nine hundred boxes and 100 flat file drawers, so it is enormous. And we’ve got 300 items on display here, so it’s really a pleasure to be able the get them out.”

The exhibit is open as of today at the Harry Ransom Center on the UT campus. An opening gala is set for this Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. Below, a video preview. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.