John Rombola (b. 1933 ), a Brooklyn-born artist, has always marched to the beat of his own whimsical rhythm. And fittingly so, when radio station WPaT, which also moved to its own rhythm, commissioned Rombola to provide illustrations for its 1963 advertising campaign “In the Air Everywhere,” to be displayed in subway cars across New York City. While the president of WPaT criticized the posters at the time for not being “sophisticated enough,” and believing “his child could have done the[m],” Rombola considers them to be “probably his finest hour.”[1]

In the 1960s, New York City Transit advertising officials put subway car interiors to creative use by collaborating with graphic artists and advertisers to promote art, local services, and a positive image of the city. These ‘Car Cards’ featured colorful and attractive depictions of New York’s greatest landmarks.

As a graphic artist deeply fascinated by New York, Rombola stands out as a natural choice for designing a series of Car Cards. Throughout his career he rendered the city’s apartment buildings, fire escapes, theatres, bridges, skyscrapers, and amusements in delightfully imaginative line drawings that that play on pattern, texture, and splashy color. In this WPAT poster for the New York subway Rombola illustrates the buildings that edge Central Park in bold reds, oranges, yellows, and blues. They burst with carnivalesque flare expressing the youthful sense of sophistication embodied by New York style at the time.

Audiences in the 1960s tuned into WPaT for its highly popular beautiful music format and its flagship Gaslight Revue program that inventively combined Broadway music, motion picture soundtracks, instrumental combos, jazz, and folk music. Indeed, Rombola’s soaring buildings have a charming sense of lightness to them, that if unleashed – like Rombola’s imagination – could float off into the air with the mellow sounds WPaT emitted across New York and New Jersey’s radio waves.

Rombola captured a spirit of illustration that was indeed in the air in 1960s New York; and he did it in a playful yet sophisticated style that has proved to be timeless. Despite WPaT president’s denigration of Rombola’s work, subway commuters loved the quirky illustrations and unassuming tone of the campaign and wrote letters in support of his work. Rombola derived the most pride from these anonymous New Yorkers; those who understood and appreciated the spirited drumbeat he marched to.

Rebecca Gross is a design historian and freelance researcher and writer. She has a Masters in the History of Decorative Arts and Design from Parsons The New School for Design / Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

[1] Véronique Vienne, John Rombola, and Melissa Tardiff. John Rombola: Eclectic Eccentric (San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 2009) 15.

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