The National Automotive History Collection at the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Public Library is hosting the exhibit Radebaugh: The Future We Were Promised, featuring the recently rediscovered works of the futuristic illustrator Arthur Radebaugh. The exhibit is curated by the New York-based Palace Of Culture. Radebaugh was a top-notch commercial illustrator who worked for companies as diverse as Chrysler and Coca-Cola. He was based in Detroit from the 1930s to 1960s, and much of his work anticipated design revolutions in the automotive and other industries. He once described his work as “halfway between science fiction and designs for modern living.”
Radebaugh’s virtuosic airbrush technique created luminous illustrations which conveyed the sleek, streamlined look of the future. From flying cars to glamorous Art Deco skyscrapers, his renderings were both pragmatic and fantastical, showing possibilities unimagined, derived from the technology of the day.
Radebaugh’s futuristic style appealed to savvy big business art directors who wished to portray their companies as progressive and future-minded. He also frequently illustrated the covers of magazines such as Fortune and Saturday Evening Post, and his stunning use of airbrush was featured in Life Magazine. For three decades, his work informed the way Americans imagined “the Future”. But he fell into relative obscurity after his death in 1974.
His rediscovery began when two dozen photographic negatives of his work were found in the studio of a retiring photographer in Philadelphia. Initial inquiries led to almost no clues about who this stunning illustrator was.
After several years of research, his life story began to coalesce: his work as an advertising designer in the booming Motor City, his stint in the army designing “weapons of the future” to fight the Nazis in World War II, his nationally syndicated “believe-it-or-not” style cartoon which brought his futuristic visions to millions of funny pages readers, and his slow descent into poverty and obscurity as the advertising industry switched from illustration to photography as its main visual tool.
In recognition of Radebaugh’s significance, the National Automotive History Collection, the largest collection of automotive memorabilia in the world, will host Radebaugh: The Future We Were Promised. The exhibition will feature the collections of the Palace of Culture and Lost Highways Archive. The NAHC will contribute rare prints, photographs and ephemera, making this by far the most comprehensive overview of the artist’s life work yet.
Radebaugh: The Future We Were Promised opened to rave reviews from CNN.com, Newsweek, USA Today, and regional press at Lost Highways Archive in Philadelphia in 2003. Garnering praise from international media, the exhibit travelled to the Utopiales Festival in Nantes, France. The opening of this exhibit, at the NAHC’s brand new home at Skillman Library in downtown Detroit, marks an appropriately glamorous homecoming for Radebaugh.
The Palace Of Culture has created an online version of Radebaugh: The Future We Were Promised. The online museum provides an intriguing look into Radebaugh’s work as well as his biography, ancedotes and commentary. The online exhibit has allowed historians, artists, car buffs, and fans worldwide to enjoy Radebaugh’s futuristic visions. It can be viewed at www.palaceofculture.org