Archives are by definition past-oriented. The very act of “archiving” renders an object an artifact of a specific past, although its orientation within that past depends on the disciplinary practice of the archivist. 20th century archival studies have made considerable movements toward standardization, and alongside this standardization of archival methodologies comes an expansion of that which we consider worthy of being archived. Thus, we no longer operate under the assumption that 20th century archives will be composed exclusively of objects from a distant, exclusively white Western patriarchal past—we compose queer archives, postcolonial archives, feminist archives, and, perhaps, in the case of Bel Geddes, even archives of the future. Join me as I explore the idea of a future archive and its relationship to the archival ethos of the Harry Ransom Center, in part by exploring exhibition visitor’s own “visions” of the future.
Norman Bel Geddes, Airliner #4 rendering, ca. 1929-1932
Touring the Harry Ransom Center's Norman Bel Geddes exhibit a few weeks ago, my fellow viz. staffers and I were struck by how many of the designer's projects never made it past the drawing board. Bel Geddes' sketches of giant, amphibious aircrafts (see "Airliner #4" above) are prime examples of the far-fetched schemes his studio was hatching in the 30s alongside commercially viable designs, like this handsome pair of seltzer bottles featured in an earlier post. But, as other viz. contributers this week have remarked, articulating what is not and will never be seems like an inevitable part of a theorizing and designing the future. It certainly makes strolling through the Ransom Center's "I Have Seen the Future" exhibit feel like a trip into a delightful, hybrid world of fiction and history.
Geddes' plans for airborne commercial and recreational spaces (the 451 passengers aboard the flying machine, above, would have access to a gymnasium and a full orchestra) interest me because they present a counterpoint to the "auto-centric America" with which Geddes' work is usually associated. It's likely that Geddes' designs influenced both American aviation and automotive systems, but for an untrained industrial designer like Geddes, the first of these frontiers must have seemed significantly more difficult to modernize, if only from an engineering standpoint. The challenge of hoisting into the air a full spectrum of modern amenities makes Geddes' airplanes look almost cartoonish. Yet, when we recall that the horizon of space travel was not so far off, Geddes' airliners look less dream-like than before.
The other day I was walking through the Harry Ransom Center and noticed some very cool designs for office buildings that Bel Geddes penned in the late 1920s (pictured above). I wasn’t surprised that he had come up with such things, of course – the ongoing Bel Geddes exhibition at the Center, “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America,” features an exceptional range of content, from baseball stadiums to cruise ships to Worlds Fair exhibits. By I did stop for a second and wonder “Why an office building?” It’s Bel Geddes design for the Toledo Scale Factory Machine Shop. What’s so striking about the design is its focus on aesthetics. This isn’t surprising, of course, given that in most everything Bel Geddes ever designed, function follows form. But this notion is quite contrary to the Modernist architecture of the period, and I couldn’t help but think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. Aesthetically the structures are similar, but Wright’s focus is on his building’s interior, which he made into a temple of work. The exterior of Wright’s building is completely in the service of its interior. But somehow Wright’s trademark consideration of lighting resulted in a building that looks like Bel Geddes’. Yet they are vastly different structures, despite appearances. Except for cost considerations. When Toledo Scale’s president presented Bel Geddes plans to the company’s board of directors, he warned that the building “would cost lots of money and be extremely different, even weird looking.” Wright’s plans inspired a similar response.
Walking through the Harry Ransom Center’s excellentNorman Bel Geddes exhibit, one thing that struck me is that while Bel Geddes is particularly famous for his large industrial designs—radios, cars, cities, and stadiums, for example—he also directed his talents towards the intimate spaces of the American home. Before Bel Geddes designed prefabricated homes for the Housing Corporation for America in 1939, or published his 1932 book Horizons, he wrote an article called “The House of Tomorrow” for the April 1931 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The “twentieth-century style” he describes is one that he sees uniting form and function anew for the needs of the twentieth-century individual—or rather, what he imagines the twentieth-century individual to be.
The Divine Comedy, scene rendering: In a path of blue-white light Beatrice steps down from her chariot to meet Dante, 1921-1930
Norman Bel Geddes lived a sixty-five years that connect two worlds, the Victorian past of 1893, the Atomic Age of 1958. His work reflects and resists that trajectory. The current exhibit on Bel Geddes at the Harry Ransom Center (UT Austin) divides his career into phases or stages of development. A highly creative childhood segued into a successful career as a stage and costume designer for New York Theater. Of all his work—in industrial design, in architecture, in “futurism”--his set and costume design remains my favorite. But in an important sense, Bel Geddes never left the theater.
The future of Norman Bel Geddes' Futurama is optimistic. Clean architecture and efficient technology aid people as they move through the business of their day. As promised in a series of 1937 Shell advertisements in Life magazine using the words of Bel Geddes, the city of tomorrow will alleviate many commuting frustrations. Until that city emerges, however, the ads offer Shell gasoline as a way to save money and reduce wear and tear on car engines while stuck in stop-and-go traffic. This use of a hopeful future contrasts with the darker tomorrows that lurk behind many of today's petroleum advertisements, drawing attention to the double-edged sword of appeals to the future.
Fashion blogs have proliferated the internet since its inception; the rhetoric of the genre is as multifaceted as its participants, most of whom are women. Daily fashion blogging, in which the blogger takes regular photos of the outfit she assembles each morning, is a popular iteration of the genre. Obviously much of the blogger’s value systems is exhibited through the personal ethos she cultivates on these blogs; the way the blogger frames the narrative of the outfit in terms of its relationship to her day-to-day activities reveals much about these value systems, as well. An interesting subculture has received a substantial amount of attention in the fashion blogging community recently, and that is modesty blogging. All the modesty blogs I’ve come across are motivated by religious restriction; the vast majority of these base their definitions of modest clothing upon the tenets of the Mormon church. Of course, the situated ethos of modesty blogging must negotiate an inherent contradiction between two competing definitions of modest: the function of modest dress as a physical representation of religious belief and the concept of modesty as the quality of being unassuming, scrupulous, and free from presumption. What does it mean to take pride in modest dress, to wear it as a badge of individualism and difference? And how can we read these modesty blogs in terms of visual culture? Join me as I take you on a journey into another strange corner of the internet: Mormon fashion blogging.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration traces its roots back to the oldest scientific agency in the United States: the Survey of the Coast established in 1807. Today's agency has a much broader purview, providing forecasts for the National Weather Service, maintaining orbiting satellites to monitor the Earth's climate, managing the nation's fisheries, and conducting scientific research. The database containing the photographic documentation of these varied activities provides the subject of this week's review.
What a wonderful map! This IS the popular vote on November 6, 2012. John Nelson gave us this map, and we thank him for it. It's called a "pointillist map:" one blue dot for every 100 votes for President Obama, randomly distributed in the county in which the votes were cast. One red dot for every 100 votes for Mr. Romney. You've heard of purple states? Well here's our purple country. Click the link on the image credit to find a large and hi-def version of this map. Then meet me back here, won't you?
This electoral map, created by Princeton mathematician Robert J. Vanderbei, uses a spectrum of colors between blue and red to represent the ratio per county of Democrat to Republican votes. The height of the verticals indicate the number of votes in each county. Vanderbei's representation of the U.S. votes by region accounts for nuances in the data that other red-and-blue-state maps miss: the political dividedness of certain counties, the intensity of partisanship in others, and centers of strong voter turn out. From a visual standpoint, the map is eye-catching because it is purple. Purple is not a color usually associated with political belief. But other data crunchers, looking to complicate our picture of national voting trends, have unveiled maps this year with a similar palette. See my fellow viz. contributer Chris Ortiz y Prentice's post for an electoral map that also reveals (through pointillism instead of 3-dimensional modelling) the nation's purplish complexion.
It might be mere coincidence that Chris and I both decided to write about visualizing ideological regionalism; but it's possible that our posts register an increasing need to redraw and redefine assumptions about voter demographics. That said, I'll leave the actual work of redefinition up to political analysts and turn to the far more obscure aims of this entry: to discuss the rhetorical role of color in images that chart belief systems and controversial policies.