Ed Fella

Ed Fella
In 1938, graphic designer Ed Fella was born in Detroit, Michigan to immigrant parents from Europe. His parents, noticing he had an artistic gift, gave him the opportunities to explore his talents at a young age. Fella says, “his father used to take him to painting classes that were held in Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts — Like having an art class in the Sistine Chapel!” he says. He attended Cass Technical High School and studied commercial art. It is there that he learned about lettering, illustration, paste-up and may more commercial-art techniques. Even though Fella’s main focus was art he did take night classes to learn about modern literature and other subjects. His creative nature led him to numerous genres in the arts. In addition to his art and reading, he collected various kinds of music and was a copious photographer. He was curious about anything artistic. After graduation he became an apprentice at a Motor City industry. Ed Fella was a prosperous commercial artist for thirty years before attending the MFA program at Cranbrook Academy of Arts in 1985. He also received an MFA in Design in 1987. After many years working, he decided to share his love of art knowledge with students, so he decided to become a teacher at the California Institute of the Arts. He says, “We offer students a way to work through what they themselves want to express, a kind of authenticity that comes from their own experiences, likes, dislikes, tastes, abilities, politics.” He retired from the university in 2014 but kept a small studio office on the campus. At the time, he was the only professor who did. He has received several rewards for his work including; The Chrysler Award, an Honorary Doctorate from CCS, a Finalist for the National Design Award, published a book, Letters in America, has work in NOMA in New York City and the National Design Museum. In 2007 he received the AIGA Medal, the highest honor in the graphic design profession.

Ed Fella was described as a kind and humble man. He never considered his artwork special until he met Kathrine McCoy and Lorraine Wild of Designers and Partners in downtown Detroit. Designers and Partners is where Ed realized his potential as an artist. Lorraine Wild talked about Ed’s work ethic in the office and stated, “While many designers in the studio talked about design and avidly collected it, Fella was the only one making new work.” Ed Fellas artwork is the definition of unique and innovative. He was able to take take simple things like typeface and give it a backstory. He said, “a lot of the artists hated the things, but other artists welcomed them,” he says of his deconstructive typography. “It was just so … nobody ever saw anything like that before, and they didn’t know what to make of it.” I think he started to realize that he had something that would be able to set him apart from others. Lorraine Wild even once stated, “Ed’s work marks a sea change in graphic design”; Lorraine also said, “He introduced ambivalence and ambiguity, the multiple meaning of design as text and subtext, and that graphic designers are really artists.” His type of style was collaging items, he “mechanically reproduced material with considerable drawing and lettering skills”. The invention of photocopier truly allowed his artwork to reach new levels. Fella was known for creating creative fonts before even technology could. His designs were far more elaborate even after the computer introduced digital fonts. His career really took off between 1970 – 1980. He is credited with creating the OutWest typeface, which he designed by hand. He introduced his fonts to the public and they loved it. Soon his art was everywhere from posters to catalogs. The Detroit Focus Gallery is what helped him gain and maintain his reputation as an artist. Fella was able to keep his creative freedom because he did the posters for free. “I said, ‘I can make a poster for you, but it has to be for you, as well as me,'” he explains. “That was the slogan I had — ‘You as well as me.’ You allow me to do this and play around a bit with my typography and the conventions of a poster, and I’ll make you that poster.” However, Ed Fella created more than just fonts he created other art works. His artwork seemed to be make believe or abstract works of art.

Ed Fellas more recent works such as “A Counterfactual History Project (2011-1957)”, are very intriguing. He created this book, anticipating that he would go to school to become a painter. It contains a unique, yet “conceptionally complex” group of his sketches and drawings. He imagined all these would find there way in his paintings one day. Although he never used these in paintings, they still create a conversation piece among artists of different genres. Unlike his typography, his art in this collection was more detailed rather than funky. He drew items from animals to letters. I think it is ironic that his art work has evolved with the generations. He says his work, other than commercial, is “experimental work”. His artwork in the seventies was bold, fresh, and funky; which is what the seventies style is known for. It morphed throughout his career, thus the reference to “experimental artwork”. I think he was trying to keep with the trends but realized that was not what he wanted to do, because he liked his original bright and funky designs. One of his art works in his “A Counterfactual History Project (2011-1957)” that I find intriguing is the drawing of the bunny and displayed above it is a man. This piece of art compared to the other is not in the same element. You would think it was created by two different designers. The art is not bad, I just feel it lacks the excitement and uniqueness I expect from him. This is where I think he looses his lack of confidence. He thinks his art was a one hit wonder with the typography and was scared to see where painting would lead his career. Would it ruin it or make it amazing? Even though Ed Fella lacked confidence in how impacting his art was, he did know what he was creating was magical. Luckily for us, this lack of confidence only lasted a short time.

I personally am a huge fan of Ed Fellas’ art work. I like that he takes risks and that he is not trying to be like everyone else. I personally like his style. In todays’ society a funky and vibrate font is the new trend. If you check any social media website, you can see how people are using unique fonts instead of plain type faces. Artwork like Ed Fella’s has been the inspiration for many other artists and digital fonts. His use of colors is what catches my eye the most. Even the art prints that were lacking in color made up for it in character. Every font and and word he created seemed as if it had its own personality. Whether the font was big, bulky and colorful or if it was dark, thin, and small; all the fonts were intriguing and made you want to look at them. I definitely see him as an out of the box, trendsetter. My favorite quote by him and about him is, “As a commercial artist, I was pretty much anonymous,” he says, “on the other hand, I was always well-known for my experimental work.” It is the convergence of so many disparate influences — including the history of design, avant-garde literature, comic books and post-modern theory — that blur the classification of Fella’s work, which hovers between the worlds of commercial art and so-called fine art. “So far nobody’s been able to theorize the work or categorize it.”

Works Cited

Biography by Vince Carducci. “Ed Fella.” AIGA | the Professional
Association for Design, www.aiga.org/medalist-edfella.

DeVito, Lee. “How Detroit Artist Ed Fella Made His Mark in
Graphic Design.” Detroit Metro Times, Detroit Metro Times, 1
Apr. 2018, www.metrotimes.com/detroit/how-detroit-artist-ed-fella-

Emigre Essays An Interview with Edward Fella,

Papermag. “Ed Fella.” PAPER, PAPER, 28 Oct. 2015,