The Manhattan Cocktail Set by
Norman Bel Geddes
By Stephen Visakay
Norman Bel Geddes was a visionary American theatrical and industrial designer. He designed, produced or directed over two hundred stage plays, films, and operas. In 1927, Bel Geddes opened the first industrial design studio popularizing the streamline design style of the 1930s. He is best remembered for his design of the General Motors Pavilion, known as Futurama, for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, a look at America twenty years into the future in 1960. It was the most popular exhibit at the fair, attracting over ten million visitors. Bel Geddes became one of the most famous American designers in the world.
The iconic Manhattan cocktail set, with its sleek lines and gleaming chrome, exemplifies the cocktail age and Art Deco styling. Legend has it that Bel Geddes was inspired by the New York skyline when creating this masterwork. But sometimes legend and fact, like gin and vermouth, are mixed to create something far superior to any single ingredient. Many Art Deco fans know the Bel Geddes cocktail shaker set, but not everyone knows the story of how it came into existence.
During the Great Depression, Revere Copper & Brass Inc. sought new avenues to increase income, and decided to follow Chase Brass & Copper into the giftware field. They contracted with Bel Geddes for a number of pieces in late 1933. The designer’s name would bring star power and publicity to the first catalog by Revere.
This was a busy time for Norman Bel Geddes, creating a cornucopia of products. He was designing the complete interior of the Pan American Airways China Clipper, as well as refrigerators for General Electric and other companies, vacuum cleaners, a prefabricated service station for Vacuum Oil Company, and the Oriole stove for the Standard Gas Equipment Corporation, to a design form that is still followed to this day. With an abundance of major accounts that needed his attention, Bel Geddes spent little time at the drafting table. Instead, he devoted his time to meetings with his large design staff discussing research and projected outcome, and he reviewed all stages of a design––sketches, designs, and blueprints––from the beginning to the end of the project.
The Norman Bel Geddes & Co. executive in charge of the Revere account was Frances Waite, who married Bel Geddes that same year. Frances had a degree in design and was an equal partner in the firm.
The first Revere gift catalog, in 1935, featured chrome-plated household products in the Moderne style, including a nucleus of seventeen designs by Norman Bel Geddes & Co., the first of which was the Manhattan serving tray. The catalog boasted “a most individual tray which gains its effect by a frank use of straight lines, delicate flutings . . . The distinguished simplicity of the Manhattan lends character to either formal or informal entertaining.”
The remaining designs in the catalog consisted of ashtrays, cigarette boxes, a candy dish, six candlesticks, two more trays, and one lamp. Few reflect the innovation and brilliance for which Norman Bel Geddes was noted. Bel Geddes did not design and draw any of these giftware items for the catalog by Revere. They were all designed by his staff––there are no drawings with the initials NBG.
One more important item was needed for the catalog: a cocktail serving set. Prohibition had been repealed on December 5, 1933. The nearly fourteen-year-long dry spell was over, and Revere wanted to join the party.
The famous Bel Geddes cocktail shaker would wait a year for its debut. We are fortunate to have a record of that period of gestation. Bel Geddes knew his work was important and would be studied by future generations. He saved all of his records and drawings. The Bel Geddes archives, located at the University of Texas at Austin, houses twenty-one original drawings, measuring twenty-two inches by thirty-two inches, graphite on tissue-thin drafting paper, now browning and faded, of cocktail shakers for Revere, with a total of thirteen different cocktail shaker designs. These are not simple sketches, but blueprints in assorted stages of completion. There is not one teapot style among them, which was more typical of shaker design at the time. They are rectangular, oblong, rocket ship shaped, streamlined, and industrial. “Revere Copper & Brass Company” is the first line in the title block on the lower right hand corner of the blueprints; all are dated between 1933 and 1934.
It is presumed that Bel Geddes saw and approved the still unnamed Manhattan cocktail shaker, as three detailed drawings show the cocktail shaker in various heights: five inches, eight and a half inches, eleven and three-quarters inches, and fourteen and seven-eighths inches. In the end, Revere produced a twelve and three-quarters inch size. The artist designer in the legend box under “Drawn By:” is the same for all three drawings, with initials C.B.
There is a drawing of a round serving tray, clearly part of a set, with eight small circles two inches in diameter and one large circle three and three-quarter inches in diameter on the tray. The small circles are meant to match a drawing of a cocktail cup that is two and one-quarter inches high, two inches in diameter with a one inch deep bowl. The drawing is signed G.G. and dated April 23, 1934. The cup has a spiral pattern in the center.
The round tray and cup shown on the blueprints were never produced. Instead, the Norman Bel Geddes & Co. cocktail shaker was matched with the existing 1935 Manhattan tray. It was a cost-saving choice. And the design for the cups was actually the top of the cocktail shaker turned upside down with a stem and base added. This was another economic design decision that eliminated expensive tooling. It was all coming together to form a brilliant cocktail set.
The cocktail set was featured for the first time in the 1936 Revere gift catalog, and called “Cocktail Ensemble.” The catalog picture showed the stemmed cups clustered to one side of the tray arranged like architectural components on the plaza-like stepped serving tray opposite the skyscraper style cocktail shaker, giving the set the feeling of a small metropolis. From the catalog: “The streamlined design of the Revere Cocktail Shaker with its vertical ribs, an exclusive Revere feature, provides a practical as well as decorative note. It allows a firm grip and makes pouring easier.” The cocktail set sold well.
It would prove to be the definitive cocktail set. The set was again called the Revere “Cocktail Ensemble” in the 1937 catalog. In 1938 Revere renamed the set Manhattan. A complete set with Manhattan cocktail shaker, tray, and eight cocktail cups retailed for $16.50, an increase of two dollars from the 1937 price of $14.50 for the “Cocktail Ensemble.” Any item in the set could also be purchased individually.
The design services of the most famous industrial designer in the world were not cheap. His retainer fees, design fees, and royalties were extremely high. Revere soon found they could do just as well with less costly designers of the day. Although Revere remained on good terms with Bel Geddes for many years, the cocktail shaker set would be the last design by Norman Bel Geddes & Co. for the catalog by Revere.
Revere published a catalog for seven years, from 1935 to 1941. As the Great Depression continued, the stock market sagged, and in 1937 the nation plunged into another recession within the Depression. The alphabet soup of programs by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his reassuring fireside chats could not shake the country out of economic despair. The nation was at a standstill. As sales slowed in 1938 and 1939, some items in the catalog were dropped. In 1940 the Manhattan cups were dropped after only four years, and the cocktail shaker was eliminated in 1941 after only five years. The Manhattan tray is found in the 1941 catalog, giving it the longest life, seven years.
Today a single Manhattan cup sells on eBay for over $1,000 owing in part to its rarity due to limited availability, while a complete Manhattan set with six cups sold at Sotheby’s on December 18, 2015, for $15,000.
Like the martini with its share of mythology, recalling a bygone age of top hat and tails, style and elegance, the Norman Bel Geddes Manhattan Cocktail Set has become a classic example of the era.
About the Author:
Stephen Visakay is a longtime cocktail shaker collector and author of Vintage Bar Ware. His exhibition Shaken Not Stirred: Cocktail Shakers and Design has toured venues around the country including The Milwaukee Art Museum and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Alabama.
Edith Lutyens-Bel Geddes, Theatre Arts Collection, Harry Ransom Center The University of Texas at Austin.
The Daily Sentinel, Rome, New York, October 4, 1937. Newsweek, February 12, 1930. The Streamlined Decade, Donald J. Bush, 1975, Braziller, NY.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.