The Daily Heller: A Most Gifted Fella

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Ed Fella (born 1938) became an unlikely legend in the graphic design world during the mid-’80s and early ’90s after coming out in support of what he unashamedly called “commercial art.” His main body of ostensibly personal work at the time included scores of legal-sized and 8×10 flyers, cheaply printed and produced for art galleries, lectures and cultural events. The huge body of work suggests he was a naif … but nothing is further from the truth. He was, is and will forever be an iconoclast.

Fella worked for almost three decades as a bullpen illustrator and layout man in the Motor City, doing everything from designing brochures to drawing illustrations, many for the automobile industry. He followed the dominant Push Pin–influenced illo styles, mixing representation with cartoon distortion. He was by no means a “star”—no one knew his name, although he did get a few pieces into art director annuals. Then, one day, this journeyman gave up his job and enrolled in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy, and started making hand-drawn graphics that in spirit and tone echoed Dada, Futurism and Surrealism, but combined these anarchic traits in a stew of ragged, jagged and chaotic mostly letterform expressions (if you squinted, you could see the influence of Saul Steinberg).

In addition to his late-in-life graduate studies, Fella also taught a younger generation of Cranbrook designers (many of whom had enrolled in the school to test and push aside tenets of modernism). Through his unique blend of homespun pragmatism and savvy theoretical discourse, he was an inspiration to students on the edge of a technological/formalist revolution. Teaching was his goal for going to grad school; little could he know then that he’d entered an experimental vortex. The irony was that rather than going digital, he remained manual. Fella further devoted himself to teaching at CalArts, which allowed him time to roam the country as a kind of Jack Kerouac of graphic culture.

Lettering is Fella’s painting. (One of my favorite pieces of his: rendered word illustrations for the 1999 Summer issue of The New York Times Book Review, where I was art director.) He is retired from the commercial art business, although he continues to make posters, and when asked, he letters certain jobs. He continues to keep sketchbooks—and fortunately, has made color copy duplicates of them—and he also sends out annual holiday greetings as pictorial/collage/typography. I treasure them all.

Although not the first book celebrating and analyzing his work, the latest, Ed Fella: A Life in Images (Unit Editions), offers the most solid scholarship on Fella yet—and helps readers understand why he is an inspiration to anyone who has hit a creative wall. David Cabianca edited the text, which features an introduction by Katherine McCoy (former graphic design chair at Cranbrook), and critical appreciations from Lorraine Wild and Rick Poynor (who curated Ed Fella: Exit-Level Design, 1985-2012 at the University of Reading).

From the relative security of studio bullpens, Fella transformed into a significant artist, graphic designer, photographer, teacher, mentor and, above all, a maker—and today he’s still making, making, making.

Although this is not featured in Ed Fella: A Life In Images, I am pleased that he did this entire issue of The New York Times Book Review as word illustrations.