The Odd Couple
Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958) is the subject of a new book. We don’t associate Bel Geddes with iconic designs, as we do his contemporaries such as Walter Dorwin Teague (the Kodak Brownie), Raymond Loewy (the International Harvester tractor), Henry Dreyfuss (the classic Bell telephone handset), or Eliot Noyes (the IBM Selectric typewriter). Rather, Bel Geddes is best remembered for his visionary sci-fi designs, and for popularizing the streamlined style. He has been criticized for indiscriminately streamlining radios and refrigerators as well as buses and cars, although this does not seem any different than architects giving décor or chairs the Bauhaus—or the Baroque—treatment. Bel Geddes was famously responsible for the Futurama exhibit in the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Less known is that one of the people who worked for him on the design of the building was a young Eero Saarinen. As Jeffrey L. Meikle points out in his interesting essay in the book, Bel Geddes’s extravagant brand of “commercial modernism” (as opposed to functional modernism) was an important influence on Saarinen’s later work. Another influence: Bel Geddes pioneered the public image of the high-profile designer that would become a later fixture in the architectural world. Saarinen learnt from that, too.