A member of Norman Bel Geddes’s staff arranging sterling silver scale models of jeeps, tanks and trucks during the “Norman Bel Geddes’ War Maneuver Models” exhibition of 1944 at the Museum of Modern Art
© 2018 The Museum of Modern Art

PhD - Norman Bel Geddes, War Games, and the 1939 Futurama

April 2017 to April 2021

By Oliver Graney
Beginning of the dissertation: April 2017
End of the dissertation: April 2021
Co-direction : Prof. Alexandra Midal (HEAD), Prof. Luca Pattaroni (EPFL)

To what extent did military strategy and the threat of war influence Norman Bel Geddes’s Futurama for the 1939 World’s Fair? This dissertation asserts that the goal of self-preservation, coupled with an extensive knowledge of military history and strategy gained through his own research and his hobby of war gaming, influenced Norman Bel Geddes to conceive of a future landscape that not only facilitated rapid transport and a greater quality of life, but did so while being shaped by a strategy of defense.

Bel Geddes was a fabulously successful designer in the fields of theatre and industrial design during the 1930s and 1940s but while his career ascended to fantastic heights, he was honing a prodigious talent for military strategy and war games. For more than two decades, Bel Geddes hosted a series of war games on increasingly elaborate and realistic miniaturized landscapes, and dedicated immense time to independent research in military history and strategy, even taking entire days off from work to strategize for the next night of game play. This dissertation investigates how Bel Geddes’s understanding of defensive military strategy infiltrated his futuristic utopian proposal for the General Motors Futurama exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair. Instead of considering them as separate activities, this dissertation considers the war games as constitutive elements of Bel Geddes’s design practice.

Is it possible to consider a language of design with an underlying logic of defensive military strategy? An analysis of the Futurama, the various designs and projects Bel Geddes undertook for the United States military, and his own personal writings on the subject should allow for an alternative interpretation of much of Norman Bel Geddes’s career.


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