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Visual Arts

Packaging Optimism

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip

Not only were the lives of Andy Warhol and industrial-design pioneer Norman Bel Geddes surprisingly similar, but they seemed to share a mission, to explore the artistry of commercialization.

In 1964, Andy Warhol horrified his dealer by making sculptures out of grocery boxes. His soup cans, Brillo boxes and multiples proclaimed a kind of industrialization of art, created in the aptly-named Factory. These efforts to make fine art function like a species of industrial design link him to one of the early ID iconoclasts, Norman Bel Geddes, who pioneered an aesthetizing approach to industry.

Though a generation apart, Bel Geddes (1893-1958) and Warhol (1928-1987) have much in common. The parallels between the two men are striking. Both came from "nowhere" (as Warhol would say), were born into religious families (Methodist and Ruthenian Catholic), had brothers but no sisters, and mothers who encouraged their creativity. Both showed precocious talent that brought them into conflict with teachers, and both lost their fathers in their early teens. Each migrated to Manhattan and carved out highly successful careers as illustrators and designers of department store windows (Bel Geddes's high-concept displays for Franklin-Simon literally stopped traffic on Fifth Avenue). Both actively sought out fame, changing their names in the process, and actively cultivated the company of important and influential people.

Both had work commissioned for the New York World's Fair: Bel Geddes's Futurama exhibit was the undisputed hit in 1939, Warhol's 13 Most Wanted Men mural the most controversial site in 1964. Both created experimental films (Bel Geddes to a lesser extent, but he also collaborated with Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith) and designed for the theatre (Warhol to a lesser extent). Both were quick to recognize the power and potential of television (Bel Geddes designing studios and sets, Warhol appearing in front of the camera in his own show and on a segment of The Love Boat). And both died at 58, leaving behind an enormous body of diverse and influential work.

Bel Geddes specialized in creating mass-produced streamlined objects that glorified a sleek perfection. In the 1930s, he amused his detractors by designing soda bottles (for Hires Root Beer), stoves (for Standard Gas Company) and vacuum cleaners (for Electrolux), not to mention an elaborate, whimsical, technologically complex restaurant that made visitors feel like deep-sea explorers.

Like Captain Nemo in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, both men were renegades who believed that the laws of the surface world didn't apply. In the end, each created a body of work that helped shape the landscape, that encapsulated his own time and movement (streamline Deco, pop) but also transcended it, changing how we see the world around us.

"When automobiles, railway cars, airships and steamships...stimulate you in the same way that you are stimulated when you look at the Parthenon, at the windows of Chartres, at the Moses of Michelangelo or at the frescos of Giotto," Bel Geddes wrote, "you will then have every right to speak of them as works of art."

Warhol seemed to concur. "Airplanes and airports," he wrote, have "my favorite graphics and colors … and the best optimism." His work often attracted attention to the impact of mass production, whether celebrating its eye-catching packaging, aping its assembly-line production or glorifying the benefits of "manufactured" celebrity.

Much of Bel Geddes's work gave credibility to the promise that progress (e.g., science and technology) and happiness went hand in hand, often in the guise of things one could buy. Warhol's oeuvre, created in a much more media-saturated world, was a reaction to the consumerism that Bel Geddes helped to create. Ironically, Warhol was a notorious shopaholic who amassed a personal stash of enough French Deco jewelry and watches, ceramic cookie jars and more to stock three entire Sotheby's auctions. Many of Bel Geddes's designs would have fit seamlessly among Warhol's furniture, tea and coffee sets and cigarette boxes.

Bel Geddes imagined everyday objects, furniture and machines that were elegant and as stripped down to essentials as "the swordfish, seagull, greyhound, Arab stallion and the Durham bull" -- all admirable because "they seem to be made to do their particular work" and "do not need surface ornamentation to make them beautiful." It's an aesthetic exemplified by his teardrop-shaped cars, ocean liner and Locomotive #1 blueprints, Soda King siphon bottle, radios, typewriters and more.

Warhol also believed in stripping down to essentials: For a long, leisurely look at how, check out his eight-hour film Empire, a protracted look at the Empire State Building, the high point of which is when a bird flies by. Or watch his homage to poet John Giorno, Sleep, a five-hour close-up of a man sleeping on a summer afternoon. It doesn't get more essential than that.

Warhol's legacy is secure, and his life and work continue to garner attention. (Witness the recent American Masters documentary, which aired in September 2006) and the soon-to-be-released Factory Girl, about Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick. But Bel Geddes's legacy has yet to be fully explored, though as time passes, his vision seems all the more relevant. The March 2006 issue of Architectural Digest featured a full-page ad for a luxury condominium building in Vancouver that's almost a direct copy of a Futurama highrise ("The World of Tomorrow," 1939). The B-52 Stealth Bomber, circa 2003, bears an eerie resemblance to Bel Geddes's Airplane #4, circa 1929. His Skyscraper cocktail set and candlestick bases (created when Warhol was only nine years old and currently selling for thousands of dollars apiece online) could easily pass for the work of Michael Graves.

It would be pushing it to suggest that Warhol was a spiritual descendant of Bel Geddes. Artistic temperament is too complex and varied to codify. It may be the string of similarities between Bel Geddes and Warhol are just a long series of coincidences. "It's all too abstract," Andy might say, as he often did when he learned that yet another Factory member or fellow Manhattan gadabout had died, usually much too young. They are not really "gone," he'd say. "They're just out shopping at Bloomingdale's."

Perhaps Andy and Norman are sharing an elevator as we speak.

* * *

Barbara Alexandra Szerlip, a two-time National Endowment for the Arts Writing Fellow, is in the process of writing a book on Bel Geddes. Her labor-intensive book sculptures will be featured in BAOLink's designer newsletter in October.

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