Bel Geddes was born Norman Melancton Geddes in Adrian, Michigan, the son of Flora Luelle (née Yingling) and Clifton T. Geddes, a stockbroker. When he married a woman named Helen Belle Schneider in 1916, they incorporated their names to Bel Geddes.
He began his career in 1918 as the scene designer for the Metropolitan Opera. He designed and directed various theatrical works, from a Broadway play starring Bela Lugosi (Arabesque, 1925) to an ice show titled It Happened on Ice, produced by Sonja Henie. He designed costumes for Max Reinhardt, and created the sets for the New York premiere production of Sidney Kingsley's Dead End (1935).
Bel Geddes opened an industrial-design studio in 1927, and designed a wide range of commercial products, from cocktail shakers to commemorative medallions to radio cabinets. His designs extended to unrealized futuristic concepts: a teardrop-shaped automobile, and an Art Deco House of Tomorrow. In 1929, he designed "Airliner Number 4," a 9-deck amphibian airliner that incorporated areas for deck-games, an orchestra, a gymnasium, a solarium, and two airplane hangars.
Bel Geddes's book Horizons (1932) had a significant impact: "By popularizing streamling when only a few engineers were considering its functional use, he made possible the design style of the thirties. He wrote forward-looking articles for popular American periodicals.
Bel Geddes designed the General Motors Pavilion, known as Futurama, for the 1939 New York World's Fair. For that famous and enormously influential installation, Bel Geddes exploited his earlier work in the same vein: he had designed a "Metropolis City of 1960" in 1936.
Bel Geddes's book Magic Motorways (1940) promoted advances in highway design and transportation, foreshadowing the Interstate Highway System ("there should be no more reason for a motorist who is passing through a city to slow down than there is for an airplane which is passing over it"). His autobiography, Miracle in the Evening, was published posthumously in 1960. He was the father of actress Barbara Bel Geddes.