Born Norman Melancton Geddes in Adrian, MI, he studied briefly at Cleveland Institute of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. He began work as an advertising draftsman in Chicago and Detroit in 1913. After his 1916 marriage to writer Helen Belle Sneider of Toledo, they changed their surnames to Bel-Geddes. He developed a very successful career in theatrical set design in New York and in 1925 created film sets for Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood.
He began work as an industrial designer in 1927 at the suggestion of Ray Graham of Graham-Paige Motors Company. Bel Geddes designed five brass concept models for him, each representing progressive future car designs for 1928 through 1932, though none were built.
In 1928 the Simmons Company commissioned him to design metal bedroom furniture that went to market in 1932. In 1931 a model of his "House of Tomorrow" was published in Ladies Home Journal and became a major impetus for architectural "streamlining."
Bel Geddes continued to design and patent not only incredibly innovative futuristic streamlined cars, trains, ocean liners and planes, but practical consumer products as well. Many of these were published in his 1932 book, "Horizons," dramatically illustrated by his employee, Stowe Myers.
The book enhanced his reputation as a flamboyant "P.T. Barnum" of industrial design. Indeed, his work inspired many actual transportation wonders such as Union Pacific's M-10,000 and the M-130 Pan American China Clippers (both 1934). Bel Geddes designed the interiors of the Clippers.
His book included his design of the Oriole stove for the Standard Gas Equipment Company of Baltimore that debuted in 1936 and set the architectural typeform for all future cook stoves.
In 1937 he designed a model City of Tomorrow with expressways featured in an advertisement for Shell Oil Company on assignment by the J. Walter Thompson Agency. This concept was expanded to become the "Futurama" exhibit for General Motors at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, probably the most popular exhibit there. It showed a panorama of superhighways and teardrop-shaped cars of the future year 1960. Using these materials, he published a book, "Magic Motorways," in 1940, which became an inspiration for post-war freeway and interstate highway systems.
In 1944, Bel Geddes was one of the 15 founders of the Society of Industrial Designers (SID), a forerunner of IDSA. In 1945 he prepared a giant 59-foot model of "Toledo Tomorrow," proposing a future development of the city that was never implemented.
In 1946, he designed a new grille for the post-war Nash automobile. He was also commissioned to design a typewriter for IBM, but his office soon closed due to financial mismanagement. One of his designers, Elliot Noyes, completed the project for IBM, which became IBM's Model A electric typewriter, introduced in 1948.
In 1960, two years after death, his autobiography, "Miracle in the Evening," was published. By this time, his daughter Barbara Bel Geddes had become a well-known Broadway and movie actress.