Ed Fella: Drawing to Conclusion

Date: 4/19/18
Campus: California Institute of the Arts
Los Angeles, California

Ed Fella has always considered himself as much an artist as a designer, an identity formed during student years at Cass Technical High School, a secondary magnet school in Detroit during the mid-1950’s that operated under the Bauhaus philosophy “…a synthesis disregarding conventional distinctions between the fine and applied arts.”1

This unique school built a solid foundation for Fella’s later career. “We studied a lot of art history. Assignments included creating paintings in specific historical styles, such as DADA, which introduced me to collage, a medium that I’ve used ever since.” He also attended drawing classes held inside the Diego Rivera Court of the Detroit Institute of Art. Fella remembers it “like painting in the Sistine Chapel. I was about 14-15 and would take bus down to the DIA. We were told to copy the great paintings but I didn’t like copying. However, while in the museum I was also exposed to Picasso, his drawing with distortion—that was more interesting to me.” 2

The Diego Rivera Court in the DIA

A part of Cass Tech’s design curriculum Fella was inculcated with work of the modernist design heroes of 1950’s: Charles Eames, Paul Rand, Lester Beall, and Bradbury Thompson, etc. Although he fully understood their methods and theories, Fella was not mesmerized by the modernists. He resisted succumbing to their formula, working in his own style which many years later he would refer to as “No-Style Style.”

After graduation in 1957 Fella hoped to obtain a painting scholarship to study in New York City or Los Angeles, but the offer he received was in Indianapolis, a disappointingly smaller and less exotic destination. He chose instead to forego college, remain in Detroit and enter the advertising field. There he made a name for himself as somewhat of a whiz-kid, (or as in a much later nickname, “The King of Zing”).

The Advertising Years
Fella learned lettering “on the job.” His style was greatly influenced by the idiosyncratic environment of older Detroit: the dated script on the front of the dry cleaner, art deco lettering (a style first known as “moderne”) on a locally made potato chip bag or on older buildings. This commercial vernacular felt truly American to Fella who preferred to think of himself as an American designer, not interested in mimicking the modernist formula that came from the Europe his immigrant parents had left behind. (Fella was one of five children. His father, from Germany, was an auto worker who sculpted in his spare time while Mom, from Austria, was a crafter.)

potato chip(Top) Influences from the vernacular lettering on local potato chip bag, Art Deco architecture (here the Fischer Building where Fella would later work) and The Push Pin Almanac “published each month for the pleasure and edification of all.”

ShinyShoeSamples of Fella’s early lettering, (right) Note the 4-part highlight he used for a style he dubbed “shiny shoe.” 1959

He still was obliged to do his share of corporate layouts and logos in the modern style for banks, pharmaceutical firms, hospitals, and of course, Detroit car manufacturers. One of his bosses, not understanding Fella’s aversion to the current style, opined that the vernacular that interested Fella was passé. But that employer was oblivious to the young designer’s real interest– not merely repeating the past but reinterpreting it through a new lens. Fella was able to find kindred souls, such as illustrator Seymor Chwast, via a subscription publication, The Pushpin Almanac, by Push Pin Studios. Fella would eagerly anticipate each new issue that was mailed from New York.

Yound Ed
Early Posters
(top) Fella in his 20’s working in advertising, (above) Illustration and lettering in his work  during the early 1960’s.

During Fella’s advertising years he came into contact with two women who would be important colleagues in his future academic career, Katherine McCoy and Lorraine Wild. McCoy, hired as a staff designer at Designers & Partners in 1970 remembers her first meeting with Fella, “I interviewed with the senior design partner, Al Evans, who offered me a job that day and introduced me to Ed Fella as I left. I recall a 32-year-old Ed sitting at his drawing board smoking his usual cigarette in his studio space right by the studio’s front door. I was 25 and very impressed by his wall of books, stacks of magazines, and graphic ephemera pinned up everywhere. But Ed, already a Detroit advertising design celebrity, seemed vaguely disapproving and didn’t want to talk. (Later I realized his manner came more from a natural reserve.)” 3

 McCoy acknowledges her association with Fella as a pivotal influence on her design evolution. “Designers & Partners had a strong studio camaraderie with nonstop discussions about art and politics, led mainly by Ed Fella. Daily, Ed would initiate a debate topic at the morning coffee break that would continue through lunch, afternoon break, and often through the evening in the studio’s favorite bar (downstairs in the Fisher Building).”4

Collage 1969 Fella’s developing personal work in a 1969 collage (left) contrasts his agency-required “Swiss style” for the car industry, 1979.

Fella became increasingly interested in vernacular imagery in the mass media and began a daily production of collages “appropriating a wealth of vernacular trash – everyday printed material ranging from candy bar wrappers to fragments of magazine photos.” 5

When McCoy started teaching as co-chair of Design at nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, Fella enjoyed “hanging out there.” He describes the atmosphere then as “hippie” and “loosely structured,” allowing him to attend critiques, show his latest work, even take field trips with the department. 6 “Ed’s interest in fine art, design history, pop culture and vernacular graphic expression was a great contribution to the ongoing department conversation, almost like a nonstop “visiting faculty” program for several years.” 7

By the beginning of the 80’s Fella was a veteran of several large advertising agencies on Congress Avenue (the Madison Ave of Detroit.) His agency work had garnered awards for his design and illustration however his heart was in the freelance work he created for local art cooperatives, the Detroit Focus Gallery and the Detroit Artist Market. “The reason I could do what I like is that art organizations had no money. There was however money from National Arts funding, the city council and state funding — but all that stuff in long gone.” 8

With art as his subject and working pro bono, Fella found the freedom he needed to push his work, often to the edge of legibility. Colored pencil and ballpoint pen were his preferred media for seemingly chaotic but actually carefully considered compositions. The new work was quite controversial. Some of the artists hated the work, but other artists welcomed his innovative typography. “It was just so … nobody ever saw anything like that before, and they didn’t know what to make of it.” 9

Early Posters
Two poster flyers from the Detroit Focus Gallery, 1987. Nu bodies was one of Fella’s earliest attempts to exploit distorted individual letterforms.

The Academic Years
After almost three decades Fella felt the desire to exit the commercial world and follow a more aesthetic path. By then Fella, a single parent, had “already raised my two daughters, sent them to college, bought a house and my share of consumer goods.” 10 He parallels his exit from Detroit advertising to a proposal by the former U. A. W. head, Walter Reuther, who suggested a “30 years-and-out” career span for Detroit auto workers. While Fella mulled over the possibilities, his friend Mike McCoyobserved that Ed had been teaching informally for years (at Designers & Partners and at Cranbrook) and suggested that Ed should make it official —earn a degree to teach on the college level.” 11

To achieve this end, Fella obtained that long-delayed undergraduate degree from the College of Creative Studies. In consideration of Fella’s reputation in the design world, CCS waived his studio classes, only requiring academics—classes thoroughly enjoyed by a student well into his 4th decade of life. (In 1999 CCS awarded Fella an honorary doctorate degree and in 2014 celebrated him in a one-man show.)

After CCS Fella enrolled in the design department at Cranbrook, then co-chaired by McCoys. Katherine wondered “what it would be like for Ed to be my student. I’ve always thought that true teachers are fundamentally lifelong students. After years of informal teaching, Ed proved to be a perfect student – totally committed, endlessly enthusiastic, and always ready to go back to the drawing board to take a project further. He made a point of being a receptive and obedient student! Ed had waited some thirty years for the academic experience and was determined to get the most of it. Also, his incoming 2D group were well-matched colleagues for Ed – all men (except for one somewhat unfortunate young woman, who nevertheless managed to hold her own) and several who were a little older. They quickly coalesced into a super talented, mature and highly verbal powerhouse of creative explorations, largely because of Ed’s influence and example.” 12

Fella did not view his many years of professional work as an advantage over his classmates, “At Cranbrook, I really was fortunate to be in such an amazing class dynamic…and it actually was more about me keeping up with them, not the other way around…I used to say, experience never trumps a great idea; a 20-year-old can have one as easily as a 40- year-old…and it was certainly the case in that class!”13

First Post Modern
Two seminal pieces in Fella’s evolution (left) 1969. A poster commemorating the landing of Apollo 11, his first foray into self-publishing via quickie printing. (right) You as Well as Me, a background grid of Modernism overlaid with Fella’s intensely layered collage. 1997

Cranbrook injected Fella into a community of artists and thinkers grappling with the question of “what comes next?” and influenced by writings of important cultural theorists. As Katherine McCoy remembers, “We … discovered something approaching theory in Robert Venturi’s little 1965 book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture. … Then in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas, by Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Stephen Izenour, added vernacular forms to the palette of cultural meaning. These books were key to an architectural sea-change that soon came to be described as post-modernism.” 14   The post modern elevation of the vernacular dove-tailed perfectly with Fella’s work.

Beyond the design department Fella could attend discussions with post-modernist architecture professor and theorist Daniel Libeskind. (It was a closely-knit community; Fella’s daughters Annamarie and Andrea sometimes babysat the Libeskind’s children). Fella also studied photography from Carl Toth, the genesis of Fella’s continuing habit of photographing vernacular lettering and signage “as it exists in the world.” 15 More interested in the image than the process, he avoided darkroom processing by shooting entirely with Polaroid film (until its demise, when he embraced the digital.)

A series of Fella’s photographs were celebrated in a book, Letters on America, by Princeton Architectural Press, in 2000. Fella’s wife, Lucy Bates, edited his collection down to 1,700 images for the publication.

In the MFA program Fella continued making collages but increasingly concentrated on drawing letterforms. Those letters were then arranged into his own whimsical and witty phrases— a byproduct of writing skills honed during his advertising days. While his younger classmates starting setting type on the first available personal computers Fella still cut or copy and pasted his letters. He retained his hand method for two reasons: he was contorting type photographically in ways that could not yet be attained with software and, he felt that he was too old to really master the computer in a way that would exceed his hand skills.

By hand he could approach type in a more plastic manner: slicing serifs off of letters, physically bloating and contorting them to the edge of recognition on the department’s old Photostat camera. At times he would continuously photocopy the type until it started to visually disintegrate. He created entire fonts of letters, cut and pasted into his own handmade “font books.” Years later Rick Poyner would aptly describe Fella’s composition and spacing, “irregularity, movement and kinetic … “elastic” 16. For his thesis he created an entire studio wall of drawn letters, incorporating every sort of commercial art to bring low vernacular into the high art environment. You can read the one liners here;

Hand generated font books, and collaged lettering for witticisms and posters.Cranbrook Thesis show
Letters from hand drawn alphabets in Fella’s MFA thesis show, 1987.

Fella as Professor
Immediately after graduation a teaching offer came from former Design and Partners apprentice, Lorraine Wild, by then the chair of the graphic design department at Cal Arts. Fella enthusiastically moved to “the Golden West” (his term). Wild describes their ongoing relationship “… at some point we shifted into being colleagues, who’ve been chatting away about Design since 1973.” 17 The Cal Arts position allowed Fella a platform to influence then next generation of designers.

Wisely Wild did not assign Fella to teach the “basics” or “foundations of design and type,” instead his studio assignments were either 4th year or graduate students who had the capability to engage in mature self-inquiry with Fella.  “I never taught undergrad students. I only had upper level students who dealt with the possibilities, the interpretation, and then contextualized it.” He has a lot of respect for those who teach “the tools” (meaning the basics of typography and design) however has a caveat for the more pedantic types who teach with the “Do as I do” credo, (the antithesis of Fella’s approach). Fellian advice for students in that situation? Do what they say, but be aware that what they say may be do-do.”

Wild describes Fella as an inspiration, “One of the best things about Ed’s work at CalArts was that he kept his studio at the school, in a room that was connected to the grad studio, and therefore his work and visual research and his library and files were right there, and students could observe him maintaining this variegated practice right in front of their noses.” 18

She remembers, “I think Ed’s most emblematic project at CalArts was a short one, called Future Histories where students had to design a poster for a design movement of the future, or in some cases for themselves giving a lecture twenty years into the future. But pushing ahead on the timeline, it became imperative to think ahead, to not just do something that reflected today, but any of the future experimentation had to be supported with an idea that could be read through form. What I think Ed gave to students through his feedback was first of all, a sense of how to “interrogate” one’s own process, with the hope that a set of questions would lead one from the expected or predictable design into something less obvious, more unexpected: that creativity could come out of a relentless process of iteration combined with a strong concept. There was obviously no “correct” design, only more interesting or communicative outcomes.”19

Designer and author, Golden Krishna, reflects on his experience as one of Fella’s former students, “He didn’t just teach, he sat by us, with us, right there in our studio. He was one of us. He was a maker, like us, grinding for the next idea, pulling out his next ball point pen to sketch feverishly on whatever form, idea, thought he had next. He used to say to us that whatever the project, whatever the timeline, the work will find a way to fill the gap, to fill the time. And in a way, his creativity has always found a way to fill his time. Age nor project nor role, his creativity was always leaping, practically visually screaming out of him. He has spent his life making, but also helping us make, spending decades at CalArts showing students, sometimes very bluntly, their strengths and weaknesses, showing them to see what they could become.” 20

The Great Debate
In his personal work Fella continued his pluralistic dialog between the past and present, mixing connotative typography with semi-satirical references, emerging as a leading voice of the post modern graphic design movement. One could say that Fella opened the door to hand drawn type (forsaken during the modernist period) and prepared the graphic design profession to embrace the explosion of hand letterers that followed.

(left) Fella’s work earned him a cult following and international acclaim. In the late 1980’s he created print material for John Kaliski (Lorraine Wild’s husband, an architect) for whom Fella created a radical main stream piece. (right) If there was ever a moment tailor-made for Fella’s work it was the 1999 AIGA Conference in Las Vegas, the epicenter of American vernacular.

His work really rattled the Modernists’ penchant for clarity and structure. In 1999, a public discussion was arranged between West coast-based Fella and the penultimate East Coast modernist, Massimo Vignelli, to grapple with the modernist’s exasperation with the post modernist approach. Fella took the opportunity to point out the obvious to the unduly concerned, that his work was personal while Vignelli’s (and the modernist’s) was professional. Post modernists like Fella were more interested in provoking a viewer into find their own meaning from a design. Fella intentionally created work that was connotative (design that invokes a wide range of references —not necessarily linearly organized) while modernists created work that was highly denotative (design that has undisputed clarity and precise meaning.) Fella hoped the discussion would help celebrate the transition from modernism to post modernism, rather than fuel the feud that has brewed between the East and West coast designers.vignelli_debate1
On the Fashion Institute stage Vignelli was seated in his elegant handkerchief chair (right) while Fella was given a utilitarian metal folding chair.

Ed and Massimom
(Above) Fella often created flyers for events “after the fact.” Working after the fact keeps Fella free from the constraints of communication and deadlines. (left) Ed Fella, Flyer for Edward Fella and Massimo Vignelli lecture at the Fashion Institute of Technology (front and back), 1999, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of the artist, © Ed Fella. 

Fella Fonts Become Accessible to the Public
In 2002, after decades of “one-off” drawn letters for his personal use, an opportunity arose to digitize his work into a font available to the public. The design, named OutWest, was initially commissioned by Laurie Haycock Makela for use in the Walker Art Center’s publication Design Quarterly. Fella drew OutWest by hand using a fifteen-degree ellipse plastic template, hence the complete formal name “Out West on a Fifteen Degree Ellipse.” Rudy VanderLans, a partner of the west coast digital type foundry, Emigre, asked Fella to sell the face through their type library in 1993. It was digitized by Zuzanna Licko, in what Fella admires as “masterfully balanced digital letters from my sketches.” Another font, FellaParts (1993, Émigré) provides the buyer 170 silhouetted squiggles and shapes that spell absolutely nothing but exude energy and charm.

fonts(left) Outwest, (right) FellaParts, 1993.

The Next Level—Post Teaching
Fella retired from teaching in 2015, however his status of Professor emeritus provides him with a studio on campus, allowing continued connection with students and faculty. It was there that we had a chance to meet with him and talk about his career. Apart from meeting the man I was most interested in discussing what happens to a designer and teacher after retirement, something I grapple with in my own world. It was a topic that never came up because the man has not retired, just moved to the next level in his career.

Fella met us in the lobby of the main Cal Arts art building. A calm and very tall man, one could sense a bit of that reserve that Kathy McCoy recalled from years past. Fella may be whimsical and jokey in his work, but as an individual he is deeply serious in his thinking and not in the least frivolous. We walked down several flights of stairs into the graduate level studio, a slight physical challenge now that Fella is 80. His studio is a glass-walled office off to one side of the student studios – those in a sort of office cell type arrangement. While he no longer teaches his door is open to students of all levels who are looking for deeper discussion or critique.

Fella’s space is a workable but not rigidly organized warehouse of drawing supplies, sketch books, and print projects. While he once gathered his material from the outside world, he now has a wealth of his own work that he can mine from his collection.

studio(top) Cal Arts main building, (above) Fella in his lair several floors below ground level, 2018. (below) Miscellany from the studio walls.studiowalls

“Retirement” allows Fella to do what he loves most, the ability to draw many hours each  day. He also indulges in what he believes is the hobby of most retired graphic designers— painting. It is possible that if the offer to study in New York City had materialized back in 1957, Fella would have been a painter. To explore what might have been, Fella is creating his own “counter-factual history,” pretending that he went to art school and producing the Abstract Expressionist work that he might have painted since then.

paintingdrawing taped up

As we flipped through an enormous number of drawings in sketchbooks and digital files, Fella characterized his approach to composition as “fleetingly casual yet deeply considered.” Working in his habitual ballpoint pen and colored pencil, he creates drawings of color-intensive, amorphous and quasi–recognizable objects, floating in space— allowing the negative space a good share of the page.

markersa_pencilsEd at computer
Tools of the trade for Fella, colored pencils, markers, circle and elipse templates and, of course, the computer.

He almost daily posts drawings and photography on his edfella-yestoday blog, “a way to continue teaching.” But the electronic community does not afford him the sort of intellectual interaction he prefers, “There is no feedback, just getting “likes,” the problem is that there is no discussion in this forum.” 21 There is one feature of the electronic media that he does like; he feels that his work often looks better displayed on screen, perhaps even better than in reality.

In the past Fella has done a fair amount of public speaking, but wanting the next generation to have their opportunity, is leaving that behind. Instead he frequently participates in projects and shows: A show at LACMA, Free Work in Due Time  creating a faux postage stamp for The Portland Stamp Company , an exhibit of his work in Portland, Oregon, at the Fisk Gallery, Some Odds to No Ends (link review)

The Fella Legacy
Today Fella freely labels himself an “exit designer. I have not moved on, I am not a 21st century designer.Know history so you can reinvent it,” is his advice for future generations.TeachingMomentEver the teacher, from any source, in any environment.

He references author Harold Bloom’s, The Anxiety of Influence… “What is in front of you is so good, how are you going to get past that? You have to go through that or around that, not back…that is what design should be for me…accepting that historicism into the modern paradigm.” 22

He fully embraces the latest wave of young innovative designers, whose work he describes as “Bold, minimal, casual and smart.” On one of his return trips to Cranbrook Fella collaborated with the 2-D department chair, Elliot Earls. Mr. Earls is his own sort of outlier, rule-breaking design adventurer as Fella and they developed a strong mutual admiration.

(left) Ed Fella and Elliot Earls collaborative poster project. (right) The last page, LACMA show on line gallery.

In respect to his own history Fella is mindful about his work’s place in posterity. There is already much on record about Ed Fella, nevertheless he is hopeful that someone will still come forward to write the definitive book on his work and career. A 2011 French publication, Ed Fella Documents, was a beginning towards that end. (below)


He has not organized a depository for his oeuvre; that he will leave to his daughters when the time comes. With work already in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, The Walker Art Center and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, he already is assured a place in history.

l http://www.bauhausmuseum.com/history/manifesto.php
2,6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 21, 21  Stock-Allen, Nancy. Interview with Ed Fella, April 19, 2018.
3, 4, 5,7  McCoy, Katherine. Email correspondence, 8/8/2018
11, 12, 14  McCoy, Katherine,  Unpublished interview of Ed Fella, 2015, quoted with permission.
16  Poyner, Rick, No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmoderism, Lawrence King, 2013.
17, 18, 19 Wild, Lorraine, Email with author, 10/11/2018.
20  Krisha, Golden, email with author, 10.10.2018

Carducci, Vince, Ed Fella, AIGA Gold medal 2007, Link
DeVito, Lee. How Detroit artist Ed Fella made his mark in graphic design: For he’s a jolly good Fella. Detroit Metro Times, Link
Dixon, Claudine. Words and Drawing: The Sketchbooks of Ed Fella. Link

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