The Artist Birthday Series

Norman Bel Geddes

Today’s Artist Birthday: Norman Bel Geddes

Norman Melancton (“Big Norm”) Bel Geddes (April 27, 1893 – May 8, 1958) was an American theatrical and industrial designer, that years after his death, has yet to receive credit for emphasizing vehicle aerodynamics, pioneering theatrical design, and comprehending an automobile-based society, all of which he did as early as the 1930s. He was the one that coined the terms “Streamlined,” “Futurama,” and “Art Deco.” Though largely marginalized by history, there’s a reason The New York Times once called him the “Leonardo da Vinci of the 20th century.”

Norman Bel Geddes, with some of his scale model ships that he used in "wargaming."
Norman Bel Geddes, with some of his scale model ships that he used in “wargaming.”

Bel Geddes was born Norman Melancton Geddes in Adrian, Michigan, and raised in New Philadelphia, Ohio, the son of Flora Luelle (née Yingling) and Clifton Terry Geddes, a stockbroker. When he married Helen Belle Schneider in 1916, they incorporated their names to Bel Geddes. Their daughters were actress Barbara Bel Geddes and writer Joan Ulanov.

norman bel geddes at work
Norman Bel Geddes, c. 1925

He began his career with set designs for Aline Barnsdall’s Los Angeles Little Theater in the 1916-17 season, then in 1918 as the scene designer for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He designed and directed various theatrical works, from “Arabesque” and “The Five O’Clock Girl” on Broadway to an ice show, “It Happened on Ice,” produced by Sonja Henie. He also created set designs for the film “Feet of Clay” (1924), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, designed costumes for Max Reinhardt, and created the sets for the Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley’s “Dead End” (1935).

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