There are automotive artists that I find fascinating for their futuristic vision of what might be or in their stylings and designs which capture speed, motion, color and seemingly more than I can see and appreciate with my normal eyes. We’ve covered Howard “Dutch” Darrin quite a bit on our website and another of my favorites – Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. But one I’ve not shared before is Arthur Radebaugh. In passing conversation with friend and automotive historian this week, Bob Cunningham, I learned that he’s a great admirer of Radebaugh’s work too.
Bob was kind enough to put together an article for us which showcases some of Radebaugh’s artistic skill and his history and background. He’s also shared quite a few images, and I’ve placed all of these images in a new area of our website which contains historical archives. I’ll share a link to this area at the end of today’s story. Thanks to Bob for sharing today so without delay, take it away Mr. Cunningham 🙂
Arthur C. Radebaugh: Detroit’s Most Prolific Futurist Illustrator
By Robert D. Cunningham
By 1945, it had become evident that Allied forces would exhaust the Axis march across Europe and the Pacific. It was no longer a question of if, but when. Filled with a sense of optimism for the first time in fifteen years torn by war and economic depression, Americans looked to the future. Spending increased. Newspapers and magazines made predictions about postwar life. Across the mortar-pocked globe, weary soldiers ached for the tedious boredom of yesterday.
Since 1941 their expectations had been slowly and artificially raised by a growing army of industrial futurists. Technology, the futurists said, would soon transform the mundane into the marvelous; the toilsome into the convenient; the simple into the sophisticated. The world was about to be remade of aluminum and plastic.
Among the industrial prophets was the accomplished airbrush illustrator, Arthur C. Radebaugh. Born in 1906 and raised in Coldwater, Michigan, Radebaugh moved to Chicago to attend the Chicago Art Institute in 1925, but dropped out.
Nevertheless, he pursued his artistic interests in other ways. As a theater usher, he painted background scenery. As a hotel clerk, he designed a large wall mural. And as a public transportation driver, he combined his artistic skills and his interest in automobiles to design a more attractive fleet of buses.
By the mid-1930s, Radebaugh moved back to Michigan, worked as a sign painter and married his wife Nancy. After creating a few images for Esquire magazine, he became a successful freelance airbrush illustrator. His work illustrated advertising for United Air Lines, General Tire, and the Burlington-Pacific Railroad, and his realistic automobile renderings graced brochures for Dodge, Nash and Graham-Paige.
Other clients allowed the artist great latitude, and his more imaginative designs were used on the covers of MoToR magazine. Plexiglass bubble tops were among the common themes used by futurist illustrators during the war, and Radebaugh applied the idea to a series of striking automobile illustrations for Bohn Industries, manufacturer of aluminum products.
During World War II, Radebaugh helped design armored cars, bazookas and artillery for the Army. He also helped develop automobile instrument panels that could be illuminated with fluorescent paint and ultraviolet “black light” instead of traditional light bulbs.
That solution made them less visible to enemy aircraft, overhead. But he never stopped dreaming of futuristic marvels: helicopter busses; houses that revolved with the sun; amphibious motor scooters; city-to-city skyways teaming with streamlined cars and trucks; and daily rocket trips to mars on sight-seeing ships that dipped down to pick up passengers.
On the home front, his fellow futurists predicted the day when their imaginings would materialize was just around the corner. Such premature promises inspired the tired. However, when arms were finally put down in 1945, industry was ill prepared to make good on those promises. Depression-lean corporations had grown fat on the fruit of remarkably short military product development and production lifecycles, but retooling for the civilian market would take months. Material was scarce and true product evolution was years away.
By 1947, Radebaugh presided over the Detroit Art Directors Association, designed the city’s Automotive Golden Jubilee logo, and was the featured artist in Detroit’s 1947 Auto Art Exibition.
He joined Detroit’s New Center Studios—a postwar think tank—where he further experimented with fluorescents, dreamed up ideas for an overhead tramway using war surplus airplane fuselages and propellers; sketched aluminum houses built on idled aircraft assembly lines; and offered up predictions of helicopter busses and vending machine-type parking garages.
He also became a syndicated newspaper columnist, and his illustrations appeared across the country in a number of series including, “Can You Imagine?” and “Closer Than You Think.”
After Arthur Radebaugh retired in 1962, he converted his English Ford Thames van into a traveling art studio. He died on January 17, 1974, and his work was largely forgotten. Nearly 10 years later, I purchased a beautiful airbrushed illustration from a friend and began to research the “Radebaugh” signature. After months of sleuthing, I finally learned it was the original painting used for the November 1936 issue of MoToR.
During the 1990s, a Philadelphia art gallery owner unearthed a treasure trove of Radebaugh’s print negatives. He printed many of the works and hosted the first-ever Radebaugh gallery showing. More recently, the Smithsonian magazine told the story of Radebaugh’s accomplishments, and the short film, “Closer Than You Think” won Best Documentary at Comic-Con 2019.
For more information about Arthur Radebaugh, visit the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pg/CloserThanWeThink/posts/
Art inspires me the way innovative car design can inspire. And seeing “yesterday’s tomorrows” through the eyes of Arthur Radebaugh is a treat. Somewhat like seeing color images of art for the first time – like the scene in the 1998 movie Pleasantville. Short 2-minute video below for those of you who remember the movie:
Thanks again to Bob Cunningham for his excellent story on Arthur Radebaugh and click on this link here if you would like to see the rest of the images Bob shared with us for this story created by Arthur Radebaugh.
Hope you enjoyed the story, and remember…
The adventure continues here at Undiscovered Classics.