Bohn Metals was an old-line Detroit ‘heat-and-beat’ shop specializing in parts for automotive and aircraft applications. The company emerged in the 1920s when Bohn Foundry bought or merged with other smaller, specialised concerns. The Bohn foundry was near the old Packard plant in Detroit and the company’s parts were widely used in Motown cars for a generation.
During World War II Bohn switched to wartime production, building on their expertise in various metals, and especially magnesium. When the war ended, Bohn began looking forward to peacetime production and enlarging their market share in a new economy.
Seeking to establish a greater profile within the automotive and aeronautical industries and beyond, Bohn commissioned a long series of advertisements illustrating all sorts of future vehicles and environments, that drew on the power of wartime production, Bohn’s unique capabilities and the brimming optimism of postwar America.
The artist commissioned to produce the advertisements was veteran artist and advertising man Arthur Radebaugh, who worked to create a new futuristic scenario each month, which would then be placed in industry journals and the occasional popular magazine. Radebaugh was an early adopter and expert at airbrush renderings of all types, and was much in demand. His skills brought in many commissions in many commissions for his employer, the New Center Studios, a large pre-‘Mad Men’ era advertising firm located in Detroit.
Radebaugh was not an industrial designer in the sense of Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, or Norman Bel Geddes. Radebaugh tended to adapt others’ design ideas (many by the three mentioned above), add some detailing (usually chrome – perfect for the airbrush) and maybe combine it with another idea to produce a fascinating futuristic scenario.
An example is the cruise liner shown above. A combination of the Queen Mary, Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose, and the PBY Catalina flying boat, the craft promises an exotic flying and sailing cruise to near-future vacationers. Exquisitely rendered, it seemed right out of a travel brochure of the time.
Radebaugh imagined the future for all sorts of vehicles, from tractors to lawnmowers plus future houses, buildings and highways.
He was fascinated by the potential of the helicopter and rendered it as a personal aerial car, or as a future bus for commuters. Again, he was connecting to the zeitgeist of the late 1940s, when it was popularly imagined that the helicopter would transition from military machine to personal flying car – very similar to the interest today in drones as the aerial cars or taxis of tomorrow.
But Radebaugh and the Bohn concepts remained products of their time as well. Most of the airplane concepts shown were propeller-driven, even though jets were being developed. His train designs were improvements over existing models, but not radically different. His cars were streamlined improvements over Detroit cars, and some designs certainly predicted some late 1940s/1950s trends, but they were basically the same Detroit iron. The reason is simple: Bohn made products for these machines, and wanted to project a future of transportation that had Bohn baked into the design. No wild gas turbines, jets or nuclear power –at least not yet.
The real power of Radebaugh’s future concepts lay not in their innovation so much as their presentation. His compositions and visual storytelling skills were superb, the product of 15 years of work. One could write an essay about each one, describing its futuristic farm or petrol station or flying car. But one didn’t need to. Radebaugh had sketched out the vision and one’s imagination filled in the blanks.
Radebaugh’s art school education had not failed him either. He had a strong sense of composition and knew how to create vibrant color schemes with unparalleled artistry, backed by the considerable resources at his New Center Studios agency.
The Bohn commissions ran for three years, and then it was time for Bohn Metals and Radebaugh to move on. He would create a similar set of advertisements for National Motor Bearings, and had regular commissions from Coca-Cola and Kaiser-Fraser. Then photography started to creep into advertising, and Radebaugh found himself on the outside of the trends.
Salvation would come in the form of a weekly syndicated cartoon series called ‘Closer than You Think’, where Radebaugh would imagine and illustrate near-future scenarios in a broad one-panel comic that was to run in Sunday newspapers all over the country.
The steady income and fame would allow Radebaugh to build his own concept car, of sorts. He took a 1959 Ford Thames van and converted it into a rolling studio. On the inside was a drawing board and three windows at the rear, to create a workspace with a panoramic view. Radebaugh would paint the outside in bright colors with the name of his comic, ‘Closer than You Think’, emblazoned on the side. He travelled around the country in his van promoting the comic and his other work, and sketching out ideas for future panels.
But a health crisis intervened in 1963, and Radebaugh was forced to retire, taking on only occasional commissions. He would decline in both health and financial security until dying in a Veterans’ Hospital in 1974.
The Bohn commissions have been characterized by some as the zenith in Radebaugh’s career, and it would be difficult to argue with that assessment. Even today, in an era of computer renderings, we are struck by their technical virtuosity and powerful presence. They remain an artefact of an era of enormous optimism, and great faith in technology and the industrial culture.
We’d recommend that you take a look through the gallery on the right – the future was fabulous, once.