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Designing Modern America

Designing Modern America: Broadway to Main Street

Christopher Innes
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Designing Modern America
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12955-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xv)
  5. 1 Styling for the Modern Age
    (pp. 1-15)

    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...

  6. 2 Egos at Work
    (pp. 17-35)

    BEING IN THE RIGHT PLACE at the right time—New York, the center of American culture in the 1920s, when a newly self-confident society was demanding e pression—is partly what made Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes so influential. With consumer marketing and modern advertising just getting off the ground, they helped create the demand for a new approach to industrial design, and the popularity of their products showed the commercial advantages of artists working with engineers. Still more important, they shared the perception that America was developing into a completely new kind of society: one calling for a...

  7. 3 Theatrical Fashions
    (pp. 37-57)

    THE PERSON WHO FIRST MOVED out from Broadway to design everyday things for Main Street was Joseph Urban. He started off small, with his costume designs being taken as patterns for evening gowns by just one or two well-connected ladies in Boston. But by the time America emerged from World War I with a fresh sense of national confidence, he was in a position to influence fashions of dress and décor. Fashion may seem something trivial, yet it colors our e perience of everything around us, and Urban played a significant role in defining the vibrant, elegant twenties.

    His example...

  8. 4 Stage and Screen
    (pp. 59-81)

    THE MOST OPENLY THEATRICAL of all public spaces were the theater buildings themselves, which Urban and Bel Geddes created and in which design, architecture, and fashion come together. The spectators, many of whom might well have been wearing dresses inspired by Urban, gathered to watch his shows, which promoted the new lifestyle he was defining, surrounded by the décor and even architecture he had created—total immersion in a flattering and deeply scenic ambience. And by far the most striking of these buildings was the new theater Florenz Ziegfeld commissioned Urban to build in 1927. As Urban explained in his...

  9. 5 Society Scenery
    (pp. 83-99)

    EXPANDING FROM CREATING artificial scenery for the stage or for movies, to designing the theaters in which they were shown, was a logical first step. Given Joseph Urban’s impact on the world of fashion, it is hardly surprising that he was also e tensively involved in designing other kinds of public spaces—particularly ones that attracted the beautiful people of the 1920s and 1930s. There was a close interplay between these kinds of places, where people go to see and to be seen, and the stage. He used e actly the same highly decorated “festive” style of wall and ceiling...

  10. 6 A Century of Progress
    (pp. 101-117)

    WHEN PLANNING FOR THE 1933 Chicago World’s Fair began, it was logical for the organizers to include Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes alongside businessmen and civic leaders. The overarching theme for the event had been decided, reflecting an optimistic view of the twentieth century—“A Century of Progress”—and by the end of the 1920s no one was more clearly associated with modernity and the development of a uniquely American lifestyle than these two designers. Urban, at the height of his career, was just completing the New School for Social Research, which opened in 1930. Bel Geddes had already...

  11. 7 Riding into the Future
    (pp. 119-143)

    IF THE CHICAGO WORLD’S FAIR six years earlier had been at least somewhat of a frustrating disappointment for Norman Bel Geddes, the 1939–40 World’s Fair in New York was an unmistakable triumph. The two aspects of his double career, as scene designer and industrial designer/architect, intersect most tellingly in the e hibit he created for General Motors, Futurama (a word coined by Bel Geddes). Futurama, by far the most popular single display at the New York World’s Fair, stands as a graphic demonstration of the way Broadway theatricality helped to shape the images and material objects that define modern...

  12. 8 The World of Tomorrow
    (pp. 145-153)

    FUTURAMA WAS BY NO MEANS a single event. Almost a year before the 1939 World’s Fair opened, highway sections of the model had been e hibited at the New York Society of Engineers, and asRoad Builder’s Newscommented in July 1939, its innovations and overall concept were “enthusiastically endorsed by leading highway engineers.” It influenced the Pennsylvania Turnpike—America’s first limited-access superhighway—which opened in October 1940 and was immediately dubbed “the magic motorway” after the title of Bel Geddes’ book on highway design.

    By now many aspects of Bel Geddes’ motorway design have become so universal that it’s...

  13. 9 Car Culture
    (pp. 155-169)

    THE “WORLD OF TOMORROW” modeled in Bel Geddes’ Futurama had been greeted with such enthusiasm at the 1939 New York World’s Fair because the United States was already an automobile society. If one singles out the dominant elements in the American way of life, what come first to mind are the movies and the car. Both are based on movement (themotionpicture, theautomobile). They embody continual change, kinetic energy, progress, flux—qualities that are intrinsic to modern life in the developed world.

    From the beginning, cars signified far more than just a means of transport. In 1907 Henry...

  14. 10 Street Scenes
    (pp. 171-189)

    THE AMERICAN CITY, WITH its skyscrapers and arterial e pressways funneling traffic into the downtown core, is the dominating symbol of modern life, and during the twentieth century Manhattan has become its most powerful image. Highways, as Bel Geddes’ 1939 Futurama predicted, have carved through the continental landscape, but nowhere is the impact of cars more obvious than in the modern metropolis. Bel Geddes’ involvement in automobile design made him from the beginning particularly sensitive to the kind of urban planning cities required. Even if he never drew up specific layouts for New York, Bel Geddes was extraordinarily influential in...

  15. 11 Reaching for the Sky
    (pp. 191-211)

    IF THERE IS ONE UNIQUELY modern and characteristically American kind of building, it is the skyscraper. Forget local landmarks like the Golden Gate, even the Statue of Liberty; in American cities, it is the towering structures of steel and glass that catch the eye. Le Corbusier’s notion was that contemporary architecture should create “machines for living,” and skyscrapers have been called, in typically American fashion, “machines for making money.”¹ The twin towers of the World Trade Center, reaching above the Manhattan skyline as well as being at the core of the global economy, were an ideal target for terrorists bent...

  16. 12 Suburban Heaven
    (pp. 213-231)

    SOARING SPIRES SUCH AS Seattle’s Space Needle or Toronto’s CN Tower may be highly visible statements of modernity. Still, Norman Bel Geddes was always more interested in functional structures than symbols, and perhaps the most functional of all buildings is the factory. In the opening chapter ofHorizonshe declared: “Just as surely as the artists of the fourteenth century are remembered for their cathedrals, so will those of the twentieth be remembered for their factories and the products of these factories.”¹ One of Bel Geddes’ major projects was a factory in Ohio for Toledo Scale.

    Bel Geddes had already...

  17. 13 Lifestyle Begins in the Kitchen
    (pp. 233-257)

    CITIES MAY FRAME MODERN society, and high-rise apartments and suburban houses form the environment in which people live. But the kind of décor and furniture, the comforts and objects they surround themselves with in their homes, are what shape a particular lifestyle. Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes were not alone in designing the beds and tables the American public chose to buy, any more than they had been with the clothes people wore. Even more than with fashion, furnishings come from many sources. Still, each of them helped to define the modern image inside the American home through designing...

  18. 14 Selling Modernity
    (pp. 259-287)

    HOWEVER STANDARD THEY may seem to our eyes today, the modernistic beds, undecorated stoves, and streamlined household objects that Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes created must have looked radically novel, even out of place, when they first appeared. Both designers quickly realized the need to provide a modern context for their wares. Because the store window was still the main venue for advertising merchandise in the 1920s, marketing displays in stores were among the earliest commercial projects each took up.

    In 1922 Urban was restyling counter and window displays for various store chains. He transformed these into stage settings...

  19. AFTERWORD: Then and Now
    (pp. 289-294)

    LOOKING BACK, THE IMPACT and influence of Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes on practically every aspect of American life is simply astounding. But I had no idea of this when I came across the documents they had left behind. Aware that each had done some work outside the theater, I had initially been looking for material about their scene designs for the stage.¹ I was not at all expecting what I found, and the task of reading their papers, usually a dry and dusty occupation, became a real eye-opener. Letter after letter, in idiosyncratic handwriting or old-fashioned typewriter carbons,...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 295-311)
  21. Index
    (pp. 312-320)