Capitalist unrealism: Norman Bel Geddes’ Futurama (1939)

Even capitalism used to be more futuristic.

Unreal City…

— T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland” (1922)


ENTER a new era. Are we ready for the changes that are coming? The houses we live in tomorrow will not much resemble the houses we live in today. Automobiles, railway trains, theaters, cities, industry itself, are undergoing rapid changes. Likewise, art in all its forms. The forms they presently take will undoubtedly have kinship with the forms we know in the present; but this relationship will be as distinct, and probably as remote, as that between the horseless buggy of yesterday and the present-day motor car. We live and work under pressure with a tremendous expenditure of energy. We feel that life in our time is more urgent, complex and discordant than life ever was before. That may be so. In the perspective of fifty years hence, the historian will detect in the decade of 1930-1940 a period of tremendous significance. He will see it as a period of criticism, unrest, and dissatisfaction to the point of disillusion when new aims were being sought and new beginnings were astir. Doubtless he will ponder that, in the midst of a worldwide melancholy owing to an economic depression, a new age dawned with invigorating conceptions and the horizon lifted.

Critics of the age are agreed upon one thought: that what industry has given us, as yet, is not good enough. Another plea of critics hostile to the age is that machines make automatons of men. They fail to see that the machine age is not really here. Although we built the machines, we have not become at ease with them and have not mastered them. Our condition is the result of a swift industrial evolution. If we see the situation clearly, we realize that we have been infatuated with our own mechanical ingenuity. Rapidly multiplying our products, creating and glorifying the gadget, we have been inferior craftsmen, the victims rather than the masters of our ingenuity. In our evolution we have accumulated noise, dirt, glitter, speed, mass production, traffic congestion, and the commonplace by our machine-made ideas. But that is only one side.

We have achieved the beginnings of an expression of our time. We now have some inkling of what today’s home, today’s theater, today’s factory, today’s city, should be. We perceive that the person who would use a machine must be imbued with the spirit of the machine and comprehend the nature of his materials. We realize that he is creating the telltale environment that records what man truly is.

It happens that the United States has seized upon more of the fruits of industrialism than any other nation. We have gone farther and more swiftly than any other. To what end? Not the least tendency is the searching and brooding uncertainty, the quest for basic truths which characterize the present day. Never before, in an economic crisis, has there been such an aroused consciousness on the part of the community at large and within industry itself. Complacency has vanished. A new horizon appears. A horizon that will inspire the next phase in the evolution of the age.

We are entering an era which, notably, shall be characterized by design in four specific phases: Design in social structure to insure the organization of people, work, wealth, leisure. Design in machines that shall improve working conditions by eliminating drudgery. Design in all objects of daily use that shall make them economical, durable, convenient, congenial to every one. Design in the arts, painting, sculpture, music, literature, and architecture, that shall inspire the new era.

The impetus towards design in industrial life today must be considered from three viewpoints: the consumer’s, the manufacturer’s, and the artist’s. In his appreciation of the importance of design the artist is somewhat ahead of the consumer, while the average manufacturer is farther behind the consumer than the consumer is behind the artist. The viewpoint of each is rapidly changing, developing, fusing. More than that, the economic situation is stimulating a unanimity of emphasis, a merger of viewpoints.

Until recently artists have been disposed to isolate themselves upon the side of life apart from business; apart from a changing world which, in their opinion, was less sympathetic because its output, in becoming machine-made, was losing its individuality. The few artists who have devoted themselves to industrial design have done so with condescension, regarding it as a surrender to Mammon, a mere source of income to enable them to obtain time for creative work. On the other hand, I was drawn to industry by the great opportunities it offered creatively.

For years I had thought of these possibilities and hesitated only due to the years I had put into the theater. In 1927, I decided that I would no longer devote myself exclusively to the theater, but would experiment in designing motor cars, ships, factories, railways sources more vitally akin to life today than the theater. The theater of the present moment is marking time due to the tremendous progress of talking pictures. Many of my friends interpreted my decision as an eccentric gesture and predicted that my new venture would be short-lived. Actually this change represented no violent jump from the identically sincere principles upon which I had always worked. It was a natural evolution. What amazes me is that more men have not done the same thing.

An artist is sensitive to his environment. As you look back and think of Egypt, of Greece, of any of the outstanding eras in the past, you visualize the culture and environment as something to which the artist was susceptible. More than that, he played the important part in creating what you visualize as that era. When working in the theater, it was my endeavor to handle my materials in terms of my own time rather than that of my grandparents. As a matter of fact, I have felt a sense of duty about it. I have felt, and still feel, that it is primarily laziness and a lack of courage on the part of many of my colleague de signers in the theater that they fail to do so. In view of this, nothing could be more natural than the step I took. Whether you are sympathetic to the idea or not, industry is the driving force of this age. One of my dearest friends thinks it is the ruination of the age; that we would all be much better if our only possessions were breechcloths and if our homes were a peak in the Himalayas. He may be right. Even that fails to alter conditions that are.

Standards of art are changing as rapidly as standards of wealth and government. Past generations have looked at statues erected on corners and parkways; future generations will make monuments of a different caliber. Due to its stark simplicity, one of the few memorials of the last century that will withstand changes in thought and time is the Washington Monument.  I foresee art being released from its picture frames and prosceniums and pedestals and museums and bursting forth in more inspired forms. I firmly believe that the statue on its pedestal and the painting in its frame will eventually vanish as mediums of expression. Art in the coming generations will have less and less to do with frames, pedestals, museums, books and concert halls and more to do with people and their life.

In the point of view of the artist who fails to see an aesthetic appeal in such objects of contemporary life as a railway train, “a suspension bridge, a grain elevator, a dynamo,” there is an inconsistency. Would that same artist put an apple or a flower in a bowl, make a careful painting of it, and think that he has created a work of art? Is it the subject matter, his technical limitations, or his lack of imagination? Charcoal, paint and clay, to be a sure, are much more sensitive to the I subtleties of individual expression than sheet metal, in the same sense that the violin and the piano offer virtuoso possibilities beyond the oboe or trumpet. On the other hand, steamships, airplanes, and radios present the same organic problems in terms of design as do architecture, sculpture, and literature. Keats wrote a few immortal lines about a Grecian urn. Had he known about it and felt like it, he could have written them about an airplane.

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