Designing Modern Life -- The Impact of Theatre on American Society - Christopher Innes

Normally we think of theatre as simply the reflection of society, "holding the mirror up to life" as Hamlet put it -- and if theatre influences the political scene, changes people's lives, or promotes cultural developments, then it's due to its emotional or intellectual effect on individuals, working as a purely mental catalyst. And while a performance may (in just the right circumstances, as with Clifford Odets' classical agitprop, Waiting for Lefty) incite the spectators to a specific and immediate action, any longer-term impact is subliminal, and almost impossible to trace. However, there is a really striking example of just the opposite: theatre directly shaping the lifestyle and expectations of society. And although this goes back to the period between about 1925 and 1950, the new society in question was America; and the American concept of modernity has spread everywhere. Not only in the shape of Disneyworld in France, or identical Hilton Hotels, but through Hollywood, clothing and fashions, advertising styles, even the way our goods are packaged. So this example is still highly relevant today -- as well as suggesting new avenues that contemporary theatre might pursue.

The people responsible for creating what we think of as "modern life" were two stage-designers: Joseph Urban and Norman Bel Geddes.

There's actually an Austrian connection here, since Urban was born and trained in Vienna, starting his artistic career as a founder of the Hagenbund and designing scenery for the Burgtheater. And already at the turn of the century he had begun turning public places into stage-settings -- as with the Rathaus Keller, where his designs can still be seen today -- although like that décor, most of his Austrian work was heavily medieval, looking back to a romanticized past rather than forwards to the future. Similarly, if the name of Norman Bel Geddes is still familiar, it is probably only because of his mammoth, and unrealized plans for the Divine Comedy, which involved a huge theater seating 7,000 spectators -- its stage, 165 feet long by 135 feet wide, rising around a central pit to four cliff-like peaks almost 100 feet high -- and called for over 500 actors and singers. He even made detailed cost estimates: in his mind, a modest $266,000 would do for construction, with an additional $40,000 to rehearse the cast and musicians. At something approaching $4.5m in today's dollars this was by any standards a significant investment for a building that was designed for a single play. In subject and concept it too was in some ways a throwback to an idealized past. Needless to say, it was never built -- but it clearly indicates Bel Geddes' visionary quality.

More centrally both Bel Geddes and Urban, who was recruited to head up the newly founded Boston Opera in 1911, became major presences in American Theatre between the wars. Urban designed, produced and directed not only over 50 operas for the Met, but also all the annual Ziegfeld Follies, and Broadway shows -- possibly the most famous being the classic Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern musical, Showboat. Similarly Bel Geddes was responsible for staging many of the major shows on Broadway, from the New York version of Reinhardt's The Miracle to powerful social dramas like Dead End.[0] However, their stage work along with almost everything each of them did was part of a campaign to redesign the way everyone in America lived their lives, and to define a uniquely modern and specifically American society. They gradually moved out of the theatre into commercial design, becoming the first of a new breed of industrial designers (a profession up to then inhabited solely by engineers).

As Urban put it in his 1929 book on Theatres, the stage is "a place in which to experience a heightened sense of life". Its function was "to establish a relation between man's life and his environment". [1] And in Urban's view this environment had to be specifically American, because America was the only country capable of forming a new culture for the modern age. A 1919 entry in his wife's diary records his view that "America, to him the New and Truly Great" had yet to find its own style -- and that while "there must be an absolute break with the past", European imports like cubism or expressionism didn't fit. [2] A completely indigenous style had to be found if America was to express itself -- and Urban (followed by Bel Geddes) consciously set out to create it, as in the streamlined, Art Deco scenes for his Met Opera stagings like Jonny Spielt Aus [3] where the columns of a simplified reproduction of Grand Central Station in the final scene dissolved into the stripes of elongated American flags hanging from the flies.

More than that (being first & foremost Theatre people) Urban and Bel Geddes each carried an intrinsic theatricality over into all their work outside the stage. Two examples clearly show what I mean. First Urban and fashion: When Urban first arrived in US, he found a Boston socialite, Mrs. Jack Gardner, wanting his costume des for La Bohème to have dresses made for herself. Then a biscuit manufacturer was so impressed by his staging of Hansel & Gretel that he commissioned Urban to create him a theme-park -- a miniature fairy-tale castle with fantastical stone decoration in the shape of gingerbread and candies, strawberry turrets and icing-sugar roofs, complete with a grotto (tenanted by live goblins, and a witches cauldron: capacity 11 children) -- which was an early prototype for the Snow White castle in Disneyland.

On being taken by Ziegfeld to see the 1914 edition of the Follies, Urban remarked in his diary: "Advertising posters! The best of their kind in America today, perhaps. But how much more can be done!" [4] And went on to make the annual Follies exactly that. He also provided scenery and costumes for a series of spectacular musicals mounted by Klaw and Erlanger, one of the commercial firms that dominated New York theater. And indeed he turned the revue into a high-quality life-style advertisement. The impact of these shows on fashion was clear from the first, with a review designating Urban's 1915 Follies "as dazzling as a jewelry store window", while a wit in the New York Morning Telegraph was even moved to poetry:

"The Urban sets with beauty bloom,

If art collectors chance to see

That backdrop of a breakfast room,

They'll start a raid on K & E." [5]

And comparing Klaw & Erlanger to a department store isn't merely facetious.

Urban's Follies came to be reviewed in trade journals like Arts and Decoration; while a typical comment in the New York Sun labeled one "a gorgeous fashion show" -- and they had a very traceable impact. In 1920, a piece in the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (explicitly referring to Urban) was headlined "Spring Styles Copied From 'High Art' Sources". As the Buffalo News reported (with evident pride) the new fashions of 1924 and 1925 were American, not imported from Paris, with "great masses of women appearing in myriads of colors" -- the most popular being "Urban blue", a distinctive colour he used in many stage sets. [6] And in fact U was directly responsible for some of the materials in these dresses, having designed the popular "Franco Prints" (manufactured by Frank Silk Mills) that were made up into women's skirts & blouses, as well as being used in handbags and shoes -- or (coordinating dress and furniture) in upholstery for the chairs and sofa that he also designed.

Urban's influence on fashion was so wide that he became uniquely identified with an "American" style. So the more sober-minded Minneapolis Journal commented, in a sour back-handed compliment: "Those of us who have resented the fact that fashion has been full of color as a Joseph Urban stage set may look with satisfaction upon the new modes just arrived from Paris" for the 1926 season, which by contrast promoted a "vogue of black, navy and gray". [7]

Equally it was thru the Follies that Urban literally began to reshape the way Americans lived. Under his sophisticated hand the annual Ziegfeld shows became highly fashionable, attended by Belmonts, Vanderbilts, Hearsts, Huttons, Condé-Nasts, Guggenheims. Impressed, they hired him to design costumes and complete settings for lavish charity Balls, and several of them commissioned him to build houses at the new seaside playground for the super rich: Palm Beach, Florida. Among them was Marjorie Post (who personally controlled the cereal business of the U.S.). Urban built Mar-a-Lago for her -- now in the possession of Donald Trump. With tile roofs, arched chimneys and a balconied tower, carved parrots as rainspouts and weathered cedar shutters for its windows, this mansion merged Cuba with La Mancha.

In sharp contrast to the neo-classical and pseudo-Renaissance turn-of-the-century Newport, Rhode Island palaces, Urban made a conscious attempt to create a specifically American style of grand architecture drawing on local themes and materials: in this case a Florida image, based on the history of Spanish colonists, the first Europeans to arrive in the area. All this is Theatre, carried directly over into architecture: And the same style marked Urban's most ambitious, and most socially influential Palm Beach construction: the Bath and Tennis Club. It was literally a stage set for the life-style of the rich and famous. This was where they acted out their fantasies in the Balls Urban designed and in fact Urban ended up setting the whole style of Palm Beach (including a shopping center surrounding a cinema -- which counts as the first ever shopping mall).

If fashion is an indicator of Urban's influence, Bel Geddes impact can be similarly measured by the building and exhibit he designed for GM at the 1939 New York World's Fair. The simplicity of its sleek, curving shape, sweeping upwards like a monumental transport machine on point of lift-off, formed a concrete expression of what Bel Geddes labeled "Futurama": a word coined by Bel Geddes himself, which has become so much a cliché for the future that it appears as the title of a current TV cartoon-serial. Inside was a huge scale-model landscape on 3 diff levels that the public (over 16 million people during the lifetime of the World's Fair) viewed from seats mounted on a moving track more than half a mile long. This followed a motorway, complete with miniature moving vehicles -- as it might look twenty-one years later in 1960: the date of this "flight into the future" announced by the sound-track the viewers heard during their journey -- crossing the States from New York (the literal start of the show) and ending in California. Looking down, through Plexiglas windows as from an airplane soaring across the continent, what the spectators saw was a whole world, realized in every minute detail. A high-tech university campus, hydrophonic farms, a steel town (at night with sparks flaring into the sky from its furnaces), a hydro-electric dam and a resort in the mountains, a fairground (with circling ferris-wheel and spinning merry-go-rounds), where the light glinted off real water running in the miniature rivers and clouds of floating vapour cast moving shadows over the landscape.

As they move -- past the changing scene and from afternoon sunlight through the night and into the dawn of a new morning (all in eighteen minutes) -- the conveyor-belt on which they sit switches from one level of the display to another, built over the apparent sky of the one below, then up to a third, with transitions disguised by clouds or rising over a mountain range. Towards the end they see a "city of the future" from a distance, then in a close-up of just six city blocks. Crowds -- miniaturized model people -- stand on the moving sidewalks, gazing at shop windows in the highly modernistic department stores; futuristically streamlined cars stream by in the streets below. And finally as they leave their chairs, they emerge into a full-size street intersection of the 1960s city they had just observed. Walking out, they themselves become the crowds on the elevated sidewalks, peering into the shop windows, which contain other GM displays: for instance the futuristic Fridgidaire exhibit, also designed by Bel Geddes -- and even filled with Bel Geddes-designed kitchen appliances.

This was drama of a high level. It was discussed in the journals of architects and town planners; it was also reviewed by theatre-critics. One of these was John Mason Brown, the doyen of The New York Post, who was literally carried away by Futurama: "There truly a new day dawns and the world of tomorrow comes to life. There an artist's logic is thrillingly imposed upon the chaos of our poorly ordered universe." [8] And indeed Bel Geddes model helped to shape America in a very tangible way. The focus of Futurama was a transcontinental motorway -- and remember that although motorways are now simply part of our landscape, in 1939 not one had yet been constructed. In fact Robert Moses (NY construction Czar, who built all the expressways thru the city in the 40s & 50s) was directly influenced by Bel Geddes' concepts. By far the most popular exhibit at the NY World's Fair, and visited by over16 million people, Futurama was an extraordinarily effective advertisement for the modern "streamlined" lifestyle Bel Geddes was promoting.

These of course were by no means the only areas in which Urban and Bel Geddes had an impact. Urban set the décor for hotels all over the states, designed apartments for modern living (which were widely publicized & copied) plus a whole range of beds, chairs and tables, and changed the ambience of shopping by designing stores like Bedells on 34th St. Curving out over the main entry was a high screen of lacy filigreed metal containing silhouettes of women's fashion through the ages, so distinctive that no store name was necessary. Walking in through the two-story circular lobby formed by the grille, customers found themselves enclosed by arcades of plate-glass showcases -- just like the window displays facing out into the street -- with glass backs, so that they could also be viewed from inside.

Urban also designed the new Ziegfeld theatre, plus a whole range of cinemas where the popular Marion Davies films (all of which he designed & directed) were shown; renovated the Central Park Casino so successfully that it came to be known as Mayor Jimmy Walker's Versailles and did a whole series of nightclubs; built the International Magazine Building in New York; and did the whole color-scheme for the 1933 Chicago World's Fair.

As for Bel Geddes (who was in charge of Lighting for the 1993 World's Fair), he too worked in practically all the same areas -- as well as designing a huge multiplex entertainment center called Copa City and the resort town of Boca Raton, Florida, plus a complete city plan for Toledo, Ohio, (which was taken as a model for NY and Rochester); and a factory complex for Toledo Scale together with the styling of the machines they manufactured.

Where Urban dealt with the elite, Bel Geddes planned modular houses for the suburbs & middle class homes. He even designed the casing for IBM electric typewriters, and gave Coca Cola dispensers their famous logo and bright red colour. But his major impact was on cars and kitchens, where he introduced the modern look of today. In 1932 all cars still had a high box-like passenger compartment, headlights sticking up between the engine and the mudguards that stuck out over the front wheels. In his book Horizons (published that year) Bel Geddes remarked that this standard design was so poor aerodynamically that if the whole body of the car was mounted back-to-front on the chassis it its top speed would be increased by over 25% -- and just a year later he had produced the Airflow model for Chrysler, which hit the market in 1934. Introducing the use of a wind-tunnel into car design (the first to do so) Bel Geddes created a streamlined shape by sinking the seats, previously set above the wheelbase, between the axles and integrating both headlights and wheels within the body of the car, as well as giving it "aerodynamic" grooves along the sides. He continued to design the Chrysler models up until 1941, as well as designing the 1939 Buick Series 40 for General Motors, and the Frazer-Nash line of cars that first appeared after World War II.

Perhaps even more influentially, he designed the first modern type of refrigerators for General Electric, and stoves for the Standard Gas Equipment Company. Both were revolutionary. Patented in 1933, they remained the standard up into the Seventies and (with very minor modifications) the same shape and structure still survives in your kitchen today. In all he designed for SEG, Philco, Frigidaire, GE, Electrolux -- every kind of household appliance from stoves & fridges to vacuum cleaners and soda siphons, as well as radio cabinets (including the earliest prototype of today's popular Walkman) -- and he was also the first to design a WHITE KITCHEN, using the antiseptic absence of colour as the symbolic representation of a clean, high-tech center for the family home.

If streamlining still remains a major concept today, not just as a style but for reasons of efficiency and ecology, it is because of Bel Geddes. It's also due to him that during the Thirties the words "streamlined" and "modern" (previously reserved for specific kinds of industrial products or architecture) were being commonly used by Americans to describe the contemporary urban lifestyle. [9]

At first glance Urban's concept of modernity (richly colored, partly Art Deco) looks a long way from Bel Geddes' streamlined simplicity. But there's a natural progression; and while the Florida-Spanish style Urban created might look like a regressive American fantasy, in his view an industrial city like New York needed a very different style to express its high-tech lifestyle. The result was buildings like the New School for Social Research that can still be seen on 12th Street, and Urban's design was highly influential. The Architectural Record of February 1931 noted, "Few buildings have opened with an equal air of suspense. Few buildings have ever had so much experiment and intense conviction at stake". With lecturers such as John Dewey, Aaron Copland, Franz Boas or Thorstein Veblen -- as well as Urban himself, speaking on "Modern Architecture" -- the New School stood for the cutting edge in an age of revolutionary change. And Urban created a glass-and-steel expression of its modernist values in the oval main auditorium with circular rings forming an egg-shaped ceiling, and the austere black and white front with broad unbroken bands of windows, which formed the basis for the post-war style of International Modern skyscrapers and was picked up by architects like Mies vander Rohe. The New School was as futuristic, in its time, as anything Bel Geddes designed; and the "streamlined" shaping of the auditorium clearly shows the degree to which Urban and Bel Geddes developed a shared vision, which (between them) they promoted into every aspect of American living.

To show what I mean, let's take a glance at the average day of the ordinary American of the time. He or she -- call them Joe and Josephine (as Henry Dreyfuss, a slightly later designer who had studied under Bel Geddes, named the "standard" American couple) -- might well have woken up looking at curtains and wallpaper with Urban's patterns on them, in a bed designed by him or by Bel Geddes, who also created the styling of the radios that over half the American population turned on to catch the news. Josephine would more than likely then take breakfast from a refrigerator, cook it on a stove or in a toaster, and eat it sitting on a chair at a table in a type of kitchen (the ubiquitous White kitchen), all designed by Bel Geddes.

Waving goodbye to his Josephine standing in the doorway of her suburban home (inspired or perhaps even planned by Bel Geddes) as he drove off in a Cadillac styled by Urban, a Chrysler or Buick manufactured to Bel Geddes' designs, the commuting Joe could well have driven along a motorway constructed according to Bel Geddes' ideas. And when he reached his New York office, it too might have been designed by Urban. There, Josephine the secretary sat at the latest IBM electric typewriter (designed by Bel Geddes), quite possibly sitting in a chair and at a work-station of his design, while any Joe higher up the office scale might have a desk by Urban to suit his managerial status. When Josephine snacked, the odds were she picked her cookies out of a package by Urban; when Joe went for a coke, the dispensing machine he got it from had been designed by Bel Geddes.

Josephine at leisure might find her gaze drawn to a Fifth Avenue shop-window display by Urban or Bel Geddes, then walk into the store which one of them had decorated. There she might buy products that they had also designed. Or drop in to MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum, or a Fifth Avenue gallery run by Urban himself (as well as other exhibitions all over the country), where their work was on display.

Afterwards, dressed in fashionable clothes inspired by U and made of silk with his patterns on it, Josephine went out with Joe to eat in one of the restaurants U had designed. Then on to see one of the popular shows or films by U or BG, in a theater decorated or built by them, winding up in a nightclub or dance-hall designed by them as well, to be entertained by one of their cabarets where Josephine in particular might find herself impressed by their costumes and scenery, while more serious Joes and Josephines might well attend one of the lectures at the New School.

Joe and Josephine's wealthy cousins would almost certainly have attended a Ball with décor by Urban. Indeed they might well have stayed in one of the hotels he decorated. When the average Josephine glanced through a glossy magazine, it was likely that the lay-out was by Bel Geddes; and Joe may have studied at a school in New York, or played tennis and swum in a club designed by Urban. Then, if Joe happened to be a Tammany Hall politician or one of the New York smart set, his favorite meeting place was the Central Park Casino Urban renovated.

At the other end of the social register working Joes could be employed at a factory in an industrial park that Bel Geddes had planned, turning out objects also designed by him. Then Joes everywhere would take their kids to play at the fantasy theme park by Urban, or to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus (where the Big Top, the Parade, costumes and even some of the acts had been designed by Bel Geddes....)

In short U and BG did more than anyone else to create what has been called the "Golden Age" of American culture, when everything came together in a coherent and identifiable 20thC American lifestyle; and it could truly be said that during the 1920s and on into the 1960s it was more than likely for someone in New York, Chicago or Florida to go through their lives surrounded by things Urban or Bel Geddes had created and in décor inspired by them.

What made Bel Geddes' streamlined cars and the whiteness of his kitchens so effective? A quintessentially theatrical quality in that sweeping shape and that hygienic-looking color. Looking from one to the other, the techniques they used in the commercial world came directly from the stage. Everything -- the lush décor Urban created for people's apartments or Bel Geddes' stripped down suburban houses -- is intrinsically theatrical. The aura of Broadway had been brought into Main Street. It was this that gave their image of modernity such imaginative appeal -- and immediately suggested why the American model has become so widely adopted as a modern lifestyle.  

Even today Bel Geddes' concept of modernity has imaginative power, and continues to be a part of home life as well as encapsulating the "golden age" of postwar America. One particularly vivid example of this is a housewife's apron from Spain (on sale in Madrid today). The slogan reads "You too can be a Star"; and the image is an advertisement for Philco from the Fifties. Of course there's an element of tongue-in-cheek kitsch in reproducing it. But the styling of the fridge is by Bel Geddes, and there is a strong sense of nostalgia as well as the suggestion that this apron epitomizes the elegance of today's high-tech kitchen. It forms a tangible, if equivocal acknowledgement of the global spread of the American culture Urban & Bel Geddes helped to create -- and their example demonstrates the potential of theatre to shape society, which has considerable practical significance for today's theatre-artists.


[0] By Sidney Kingsley, though the script was heavily adapted by Bel Geddes, who was also the producer and director of the 1935 Broadway staging, as well as the designer.

[1] Theatres, Theatre Arts Press, New York 1929, unpaginated.

[2] All unpublished material by or related to Joseph Urban, cited here, is located in the Special Collections at the Library of Columbia University, New York. Norman Bel Geddes' documents are collected in the Harry Ransome Humanities Research Center at Austin, Texas.

[3] Jonny Spielt Aus -- a "modern" opera by Kreneck, set in America and including jazz music -- was a logical choice to further Urban's aim of reflecting his vision of a new American culture on the stage. First performed in Hamburg, 1927, Urban's 1929 Met production was much admired.

[4] Recorded by Oliver Saylor in "Shadowland" (t/s interview with Urban, unpaginated. 1923, Columbia)

[5] The New York Sun, 8 October 1915, and Morning Telegraph, 1 November 1915.

[6] The Commercial Tribune, 2 May 1920; Buffalo News, 16 March 1926.

[7] The Journal (Minneapolis), 28 March 1926.

[8] New York Post, 11 May 1939.

[9] The impact of Norman Bel Gedds' book, Horizons (Little, Brown & Co. New York, 1932) in which he outlined his principle of "streamlining" and showed how it could apply to all forms of transport, as well as architecture, interior design, industrial manufactures and kitchen appliances, was immense.


Apart from contemporary newspaper and journal articles, written during their lifetimes, very little has been published about either Joseph Urban or Norman Bel Geddes. There is only a single biography of Urban, and a memorial issue of Architecture published a year after his death, although both Urban and Bel Geddes published books on their own work:

Bel Geddes, Norman: Horizons, Little Brown & Co, New York, 1932.

--------------: Magic Motorways, Random House, New York 1940.

--------------: Miracle in the Evening, an Autobiography, ed. William Kennedy, Doubleday, New york 1960.

--------------: A Project for the Theatrical Presentation of the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Forword by Max Reinhardt, Photos by Francis Bruguiere, Theatre Arts, New York 1924.

Carter, Randolph and Cole, Robert: Joseph Urban, Abbeville Press, New York 1992.

Taylor, Deems: "The Scenic Art of Joseph Urban", Architecture, May 1934.

Teegen, Otto: "Joseph Urban's Philosophy of Color", Architecture, May 1934.

Urban, Joseph: Theatres, Theatre Arts, New York 1929.

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