In the early 1930s, the General Motors Art and Colour division was emerging as the most innovative hub of automotive stylists. William McBride was a young man living in Chicago’s South Side, dreaming of fanciful and futuristic cars. As a boy, he “spent sixteen years learning how to design automobiles, to make them real. Cars on the street today are some of the designs that I designed,” McBride would later recall in an oral history interview with the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.[1] What drawings remain known of McBride’s car concepts feature bold color choices and ultramodern elements. The drawing shown here from Cooper Hewitt’s collection features a streamlined, elongated hood and chrome crosshatched components that draw the eye back from the front wheel well, suggesting speed even with the car shown at a standstill.

McBride would later recall that he sent his concept drawings to General Motors, hoping for a competitive slot in Art and Colour. A job offer as an automotive stylist never materialized. But his concept car renderings caught the eye of a young and energetic teacher, George Neal (1906-1938). Neal, who was studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago while simultaneously working as a sign painter and illustrator, was deeply impressed with McBride’s car concepts. “I’ve never seen cars like this,” Neal told McBride. “You’re in a class with Bel Geddes, Shamrock and Campbell, and David Owens,” listing off some of the best-known industrial designers of the day.[2] Neal engaged McBride in the newly formed Art Crafts Guild, a collective of young African American artists in Chicago. The subsequent establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1935 offered McBride the opportunity for paid work designing murals, posters, and graphics. In 1940, McBride helped to establish the South Side Community Art Center, which offered studio space for young artists and fostered progressive black cultural politics. McBride continued to produce art and design throughout his career, and his works are held in the collections of many public institutions. But the ingenuity of his early car concepts remains. “They told him the cars would never be chartreuse,” McBride’s sister said after his death in 2000. “And look, now they are. My brother was a dreamer, and he was born way before his time.”[3]

[1] “Oral history interview with William McBride.” Interview by Carol Adams. Archives of American Art. October 30-31, 1988.

[2] “Oral history interview with William McBride.” Interview by Carol Adams. Archives of American Art. October 30-31, 1988.

[3] Challos, Courtney. “William McBride, Artist, Collector, Force For WPA.” Chicago Tribune, August 17, 2000.


Caitlin Condell is the Associate Curator and Head of Drawings, Prints & Graphic Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

One thought on “A Stylist Ahead of His Time

Thank you for this story. I very much appreciate the self driven career path. He was ahead of his time.

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