Designing the future

Garth Huxtable's work as an industrial designer has ranged from children's furniture and do-it-yourselfers' tools, for example, to a caf'e in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House, tableware for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York (some of it now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art), and special furniture for United Nations conference rooms. Mr. Huxtable earlier worked in the office of Norman Bel Geddes, whose Futurama was a main attraction at the World's Fair of 1939-40. We aske d him for a few words from behind the scenes as we offer a novelist's view on the facing page and -- tomorrow -- visits to the New York fair of a quarter century later, and to Britain's Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of a century before. WORK was difficult to find in 1933 when I left Boston for New York as a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Art, to look for a job in the new profession of industrial design. It was the height of the depression and I counted myself lucky to land a spot in an advertising art studio for $6 a week, which they had the courtesy to call carfare and lunch money.

I also submitted my design portfolio to the office of Norman Bel Geddes. Mr. Geddes (as I knew him), later immortalized as ``The Father of Streamlining,'' was then best known as a theater designer; he was also prominent as an industrial designer, and would become famous as the creator of the General Motors Futurama at the 1939 World's Fair. After an interview, I was hired as a very junior designer-draftsman (now called drafter) and began work on metal gift-ware. I was overwhelmed by the exciting work al l around me and awed by the great man himself. For days I never saw him but finally he bounded on the scene with some sudden enthusiasm that brought him from his office.

The establishment was in a shabby brownstone on 37th Street off Lexington Avenue. Beyond the small reception room a dark winding stairway led first to Mr. Geddes' office, musty and full of dusty models of his stage sets, his futuristic streamlined ocean liner, railway train, and other visionary creations.

On the next floor was the overcrowded drafting room with antiquated tables and stools. And on the top floor was the model-making shop and a small printing shop as Geddes liked to have special forms printed for various office operations. The printer was very busy. At the time all manner of wonderful projects were being designed. From a streamlined yacht and the Electrolux vacuum cleaner for Axel Wennergren to an enormous flying boat for Glenn L. Martin; modern gas stations, automobile tire treads, a new front design for the troubled and ill-fated Chrysler ``airflow'' car, and a group of domestic appliances.

After a few months the office was overextended, budgets were overrun. Clients took a second, dimmer look at Geddes' futuristic ideas, and I was dismissed with a promise that I would be called back just as soon as the work was reorganized.

It was two years later, in 1936, when I was asked to rejoin the office to work on the design of a model ``city of the future, 1960'' commissioned by J. Walter Thompson for a Shell Oil Company advertising campaign.

This model turned out to be the forerunner of the General Motors Futurama, the most famous exhibition of the 1939 World's Fair.

The model was constructed on a very tight schedule and budget and was most successful for its advertising purpose. It was exhibited at engineering conventions and attracted a lot of attention. Mr. Geddes' visionary presentation was backed up by ideas from Dr. Miller MacClintock, a traffic engineering authority from Harvard, and from other architectural and engineering studies.

By the time the 1939 World's Fair planning was under way, the major design offices were creating buildings and exhibits and the Geddes office had several exciting projects on the drawing boards.

But Geddes himself was mainly absorbed with expanding the ideas of his traffic control system beyond the model city, to cover the whole country -- from cities, suburbs, towns, and villages to farmland, open country, mountains, lakes, and rivers, in one huge model for a World's Fair exhibition.

To supplement the model city, a group of young architectural renderers were brought in who worked from rough sketches and plans to produce 14 large charcoal drawings illustrating these countrywide highway and traffic conditions.

Although all the drawings were essentially similar in character, each artist had a personal style.

Geddes was not satisfied with the overall presentation. He asked me to stay one evening and work with him -- I never again worked so many unpaid overtime hours as in the Geddes office. He looked over the drawings, made some suggested changes, and left, saying he would return later.

I worked and waited until past midnight. Finally he rushed in dressed in formal attire -- he was prominent as a man about town and a member of caf'e society, and seldom missed a first night. He threw off his top hat, tails, and tie, loosened his collar, stripped down his suspenders and, with hardly a word, took each drawing and proceeded to render a fine diagonal hatching line over it. I thought him slightly mad, but as the work progressed I saw how he was pulling the drawings together in a handsome and

unified group. He sent me home about four in the morning. When the artists came in to work the next day, they were first annoyed, then amused and accepted the fact that Geddes had ``rained on our drawings.''

The first presentation to potential world's fair sponsors was made to Goodyear Tire. They were interested but decided the proposed exhibit was not for them. Providentially, General Motors came on the scene, with more vision and a bigger budget. I quickly erased all ``Goodyear'' titles and replaced them with ``General Motors.''

The next morning a contingent from General Motors, including president Knudsen and vice-president Grant, arrived at the Geddes office very early while he was at home in bed, no doubt after a late evening. I kept them entertained and photographed them studying the model city until Geddes arrived.

They loved the presentation, accepted the ideas proposed, and the rest, I guess is history.

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