Words – and Images – on Ed Fella
Ed Fella’s AIGA Medalist profile sums him up succinctly: He’s “one of the most influential designers of the last quarter century.” And now he’s retiring. But having been friends since I first interviewed him for Emigre back in 1993, I figure that “retire” will be more like a change of treads, appropriate for a man who started up in Detroit with decades of auto industry servicing and other such commercial maintenance work. And after getting an overhaul and tune-up at the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s MFA program, he was driven to move out west to park, but not idle, at the California Institute of the Arts. When I asked “Why stop now?” he noted that he’s taught there for the past 25 years and, having arrived at age 75, “It kind of makes a nice symmetry, don’t you think?”
He went on: “I left professional practice after 30 years and became an ‘exit-level designer.’ I still continued to work but just to not take commercial jobs and compete with the next generation for the remuneration. And now I want to do the same thing with teaching. I’ll continue being around CalArts and in my studio, not as a faculty with a paid teaching position, but as a sort of free floating, available—but not mandatory—‘exit-level educator.’” And he sent me the above work as a visual reflection on his transition.
Ed’s Cal Arts retirement party is this Thursday evening, March 16th. And, just like his faculty room door, it’s open to everyone. You’ll find details at this Facebook page.
As for the future: “I have two practices,” he says. “One is my ‘counter-factual history’ art career: I pretend I went to art school in 1957 and became a painter instead of a graphic designer, and this is the work I would have done back then. I only make ‘drawings for paintings;’ no point in making the actual paintings, of course. And the other is my ongoing ‘Potential Avant Garde Graphic Design for Begone Eras,’ which is mainly collage and drawing lettering and almost always done in my sketch books.
I just couldn’t let the occasion pass without asking Ed’s friends, former students, and other associates for their thoughts and feelings. Please feel free to add your own remarks in the comments section below.
Rudy VanderLans Designer; Photographer; Co-Founder, Emigre magazine and font foundry
“Ed’s formal explorations opened up so many new avenues within graphic design. He showed us that the boundaries of graphic design were just a figment of some other people’s narrow imaginations.”
Graphic Designer, Los Angeles
“This is from my introduction to Ed Fella’s last official CalArts lecture last month: ‘I cannot imagine my life as a designer without Ed. And I can’t imagine American graphic design in the late 20th century outside of the context of Ed. But most of all, I can’t really imagine the education of two generations of CalArts students without him.'”
Michael Worthington Co-Director, Graphic Design Program, CalArts
“Here’s the poster I made as one of a series for Ed’s last lecture.”
Louise Sandhaus Faculty, CalArts
“In so many ways Ed is the emblem of the CalArts Program, the energy, engagement, and devotion to making and talking about making. Or in the case of Ed: making, making, making and talking talking talking.
“As faculty we orbit with Ed, illuminated by his incessant visual and verbal chatter, sometimes feeling, perhaps, as if we’re walking in the giant shadow of his massive, exuberant production.
“Ed has a big ear and open door. Whether student or faculty, everyone is invited into his studio: a windowed haven overlooking and tucked into the grad work spaces, which seems all but constructed of books and boxes of his work and the work of others.
“‘What’s what’ is never in doubt when it comes to Ed, and he will never fail to tell you how it is. Working with him in the classroom is a wonder, as along with the multicolored pen he wields the sword of sharp criticism.
“Ed is the opposite of a man of few words: a verbosity that echoes in the hearts, heads, and hands of so, so many.”
Katherine McCoy AIGA Medalist; Alliance Graphique International elected member; Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America
“The studio is Ed Fella’s natural environment. Ed takes the studio with him wherever he goes, continuously creating his own work and provoking design discussions. I suspect Ed’s official retirement from Cal Arts will be just a formality, because Ed can’t resist teaching art and design any more than he can resist making art and design; so he will likely remain a big presence at Cal Arts.
“My encounter with Ed’s design and teaching began in 1970 at Designers & Partners, a Detroit advertising design studio. There, Ed conducted a daily ‘symposium’ of vigorous – and often outrageous – discussions and debates at lunch, mid-afternoon breaks, and afterwork bar sessions. When I left Designers & Partners to co-chair Cranbrook’s Design Department with my husband Michael, Ed spent many hours in the design studios with our grad students and was a major influence on our work and thinking. Eventually Ed made it official and spent two years at Cranbrook earning his own MFA, and then joined the CalArts Graphic Design faculty.
“When I first came under Ed’s spell, I was working within a design framework based on Swiss Modernism and George Nelson’s industrial design functionalism. Ed’s interest in vernacular design went far deeper than the standard American graphic design eclecticism and became a major influence for me. This was circa 1971 and I was also reading Robert Venturi’s ideas about vernacular architecture and postmodernism. Both Ed and Venturi understood that American commercial vernacular embodied rich formal languages that resonated with the public and was readable by them. These ideas greatly enriched my own design, the design projects I assigned, and the output of our students.
“Congratulations, Ed on this next big career move!”
Debbie Millman President, Design, Sterling Brands
Sean Adams president, ex officio, AIGA; partner, AdamsMorioka, Inc.; faculty, Art Center College of Design
“I’d love to say that Ed was a wonderful mentor and guided my life as a designer. But Ed came to CalArts after I left. I was luckier: I spent a wonderful summer working in a small space with Ed, listening to his stories. And Ed has come defended Noreen’s and my honor multiple times over the last 20 years.
“In 1988, Ed, Lorraine Wild, and Jeff Keedy set up a loose collaborative studio downstairs from Jeff’s apartment. I worked with Lorraine on the first Morphosis book. Bruce Mau was staying in the guest room upstairs while he spent a term teaching at CalArts. Ed shared my knowledge of L.A. tragedies. Every day when Bruce wasn’t teaching, he’d sit on the steps and hang out with us. At lunch he’d walk to Bob’s Big Boy on Wilshire. We told Bruce that this was the ‘death’ Bob’s. Ed jumped in and knew the whole story about the late night hold-up, staff and customers being shoved into the freezer, and everyone murdered. I was amazed and thrilled that someone else shared my bizarre and useless knowledge about ‘death’ places in L.A.
“Years later, in 1995, when Noreen and I first began AdamsMorioka, Lucille Tenazas asked us to speak at a student conference in San Francisco. Ed was the other speaker. We did our lecture, which was met with silence. There was a palpable sense of hate in the room. When the Q&A began, we understood the problem. ‘Your work is very bright and colorful. Don’t you feel that you’re not showing the world as it is and addressing the dystopia we inhabit?’ Or, ‘Does it bother you to work with purveyors of American popular culture colonialism in the entertainment industry?’ and ‘How can you stand L.A.?’ Lucille suggested we be less funny in the future.
“If you don’t live on the west coast, you may not know that there are San Francisco people that think Los Angeles is a hell-hole of superficial people. Which it may be, but that’s the fun part.
“Ed started his lecture by saying, ‘Those guys are great. They’re taking critical thinking and multiple concepts and veneer them with seductive form. They make more with less.’ How can you not love someone who defends you in a room of hostile, serious, and humorless students?
“Postscript: a decade later I spoke in San Francisco again and had a great time. The students were smart, funny, inquisitive, and a true pleasure. Times change.”
Kenneth FitzGerald Educator; Writer; Artist
“I’ll always cherish the memory of chatting with Ed – well, he did most of the talking, and that was great – during a night drive around L.A. He gave me one of my most treasured design artifacts: a hand-drawn map on how to take the buses to the Getty; I still got lost, but it was on me. And years later, he spontaneously recalled and complimented my drawings. It’s pretty obvious why he’s beloved.
“Oh, and then there’s his great artwork, too.”
Gunnar Swanson Designer; Writer; Educator
“Ed is a lot like his work: complex, sometimes a bit twisted, not always clear, but generally a source of joy and inspiration.
“Ed and his work are, as Martha used to say, ‘good things.’ But perhaps more importantly, his work has inspired a generation or two toward formal exploration. The products of this exploration have not always been wonderful but the net result has been vital to the development of graphic design over the last decades.”
Alissa Walker A Walker in LA
“I’ve only met Ed in person once although I’ve written about him for years. But here’s one thing people who aren’t from CalArts might not know about him: he keeps fortunes on his office door at CalArts.”
Jonathan Barnbrook Graphic, Typeface, Industrial, and Motion Graphics Designer; Activist
“Ed Fella: simply the best example to everybody who is a designer or who wants to be a designer.
“He has been there, done everything, worked for years doing the toughest of commercial work, clients that I wouldn’t have the stamina to deal with, and yet come out of it with a truly unique, innovative, incredibly creative approach to typography and design, something which is truly authentic in its integration of his surroundings and experience. Many have copied him, but they lack the intellectual input and the craft that have gone into making his work what it is.
“Fine to be a genius, but for me being a nice person is almost as important. Every conference I have been to with Ed, he marks it with his own piece of work and gives it to people. When I lectured at CalArts he made sure to take time to take me out and just walk and talk about life. A great example of not only one the greatest innovators of typography of this era, but also of a kind generous, gracious, fantastic, humbling human being, too.”
Ellen Lupton Senior Curator / Contemporary Design, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum
“Ed Fella showed designers a different way to work. He took what existed in the culture and turned it into his own strange thing. And then he shared it.
“Thank you, Ed!”
Steven Heller Art Director; Educator; Author; Editor
“One of my happiest memories as an art director was having Ed Fella’s lettering on – and overwhelm – the entire ‘New York Times Book Review.’ He redrew—or shall we say ‘undid’?—the ‘Book Review’ masthead and made a lettering concoction that was like nothing seen on its covers and interiors before.
“To this day, I am amazed we got away with so flagrant a flaunting of ‘Times’ style. And yet Fella’s contribution was within the ‘Times’ standard of excellence.
“The artifact remains. And I remain grateful to have it.”
Ric Grefé Executive Director, AIGA
“In nearly two decades and encounters with over 40,000 designers, I can say personally and on behalf of AIGA that Ed is uniquely inspirational to designers across the arc of their careers.
“He defies age—despite his retiring early—and has an impish insouciance that fits nicely with the jeans and t-shirts of open-minded, optimistic, excited young fetishists, while capturing the admiration of the elders, because he is always imaginative, loves designing, seems to have learned to pirouette around The Man, followed his heart, and still gets to play with crayons.
“Thank you, Ed, for all that you have done for generations of designers.”
David Shields Chair, Department of Graphic Design, Virginia Commonwealth University
“The first time I met Ed was at Cranbrook Academy of Art in the fall of 1992. Ed was visiting Detroit and part of his time in the city was scheduled to spend a few days with students. The three days on campus were a whirl of activity. Ed spent seemingly all hours with us in the studios, I’m inclined to remember that the students got more sleep than he did over those three days.
“The few days of work was all fueled by a simple prompt from Ed: ‘Do something you haven’t done before.’ It set off a nice little explosion of activity, and was great fun: working furiously through broad interpretations of the prompt, racing towards the deadline. Desk crits, group crits, chatting, and at least several meals in the Boy’s School Dining Hall. All of it amazing, and eye-opening and expanding. I remember thinking that someday when I grow up I wanted to have that level of energy, and provide that intensity of focus.
“All this buzz of activity and energy, all with the simple prompt of ‘Do something you haven’t done before.’ It’s a prompt I adopted, and use to this day with students, always with fresh results … if maybe not the energy Ed provided. Assigning it now always makes me think of Ed. I just hope that someday when I grow up I’ll be able to have that level of energy, and provide that intensity of focus.”
Haven Lin-Kirk Area Head of Design, USC Roski School of Fine Arts
“I remember first coming across an Ed Fella image back in the early 1990s.
“At the time, I was a young working designer, fresh out of grad school. I was struggling to pay back some hefty student loans, juggling freelance work at a publishing firm and working in-house for a large, very rigid and conservative corporation … trying to find relevance in theory and practice. I was judging my dual interest in both art and design and the thought that these worlds could merge was just starting to seem plausible to me. In my mind, Ed was a young creative, starting off just like me and exploring the boundaries of what design could be. The deconstructive way that he approached layout challenged everything that was happening in my professional and creative worlds. I had never seen typography approached in that manner. I knew from first sight this is where I lived!
“It was only much later that I learned that Ed was actually several decades older than I was and had already traveled down a similar professional path, completing an MFA from Cranbrook only four years before me. This only elevated him higher as my “design hero.”
“When I began teaching years later, I would pull out examples of Ed Fella layouts to challenge students’ ideas of what graphic design would be. I remember it was a litmus test: how open were they to the potential of design? And years later, when I finally had a chance to meet him through one of my former students, now his grad student, I have to admit that I was a little star-struck. Our conversation was about being in the “exit phase” of his career, an expression he used to describe being an influencer and not a competing force with his students. Amazing! Again he left me thinking not only of the role of a designer but of a design educator, lessons that I still carry to this day.
“My most recent encounter was this past semester. Ed was invited to come to the Roski School as a VIP guest speaker. Again it was through another one of his former students, now a USC professor, Andrew Kutchera. The room was filled with young designers and artists – or more accurately, packed to the four walls – all there to hear the iconoclastic designer speak. He showed images of his prolific collection of work and talked about learning and breaking rules. And he charmed everyone.
“Several weeks later, I was incredibly touched when he sent me two little collage pieces in the mail. This came at the end of an incredibly difficult semester for me. Those beautiful little pieces now sit framed in my office and remind me every day how important design still is to me.
“As I move through the world these days I notice Ed Fella pieces and his influence everywhere. On a recent study tour with my students to New York I found his pieces at AIGA’s headquarters, in Ric Grefe’s office alongside Fredrick Goudy’s gavel, and behind Steven Heller’s desk at the School of Visual Arts. Much like the first time I encountered one of his works, I’m reminded how lucky I am to be in world with someone like Ed Fella.”
Andrew Kutchera Adjunct Faculty, University of Southern California
“Ed’s guidance during graduate school was invaluable. He was thoughtful in his critiques, as well as demanding and fun! He relished visual and conceptual surprises, and he vigorously defended work that took risks.
“Additionally, Ed has been an incredible role model regarding the joy of making work. His incredible production and experimentation continue to inspire me.”
Stefan Bucher Designer; Illustrator; Writer
Jonathan Notaro Creative Director and Director, Brand New School
“Ed was the first person to teach me the benefits of being culturally aware and how this knowledge could help shape a point of view. He once made a topical news reference, and could tell I had no clue. The following classes, he allocated a portion of his lecture time teaching me how to ‘speed read’ ‘The New York Times’ for things I should find relevant as a designer.
“He was absolutely one of the people who contributed to the general ‘where the hell is this all going’ sense we had in school, which has evolved into a working process most of us couldn’t have imagined obtaining otherwise.”
Lucy Virginia Cook Designer; Educator
“After graduating with my MFA from CalArts in 2010, I was packing up my books in the grad studio. I came across my treasured Edward Fella: Letters on America. It was a birthday gift from a few years earlier. I opened it up to find an inscription and a card that fell out. My friend had filled the title page with remarkable words about Ed, closing with, ‘And I hope this book inspires you for a lifetime.’ A startling moment, to look back at my life before personally knowing Ed Fella. How apparent and even dramatic that stars aligned in such a way, to see that this art book had transitioned into a reality for me personally: an endearing relationship with a design hero.
“To know now that I worked with Ed, and that he was a mentor to me for three years in the design program, leaves me overwhelmed. He gave me a new perspective on beauty in the everyday and has left me inspired for a lifetime, indeed.”
David Cabianca Associate Professor/Associate Chair, York University
“I have an image that I think suits Ed. It was supplied by Ed for a piece I wrote that never published. It is a photograph of Ed and Lucy [Bates]’s living room wall. I like it because it encapsulates Ed’s respect for the uncelebrated artist and designer. Ed will often buy folk art at garage sales and add to the image before hanging them in his home. I think the innocence they exhibit is equal to Ed’s respect for the sense of craft they display.”
Jason Tselentis Designer; Writer; Educator
“When I rediscovered Ed Fella’s work in college, it reminded me about the exuberant and sculptural typography I made during my adolescent years. Like most youngsters, I rendered letters by hand: drawing, layering, bloating, painting, cutting, and carving them into heroic, intimidating, comical, or adventurous messages and phrases. They could be comic book mastheads, a movie’s opening title sequence, maybe my own name, or just my initials. That’s what I did as a child, and I now see my own children do the same.
“Ed’s work shows us that we can interpret our own typographic universe, with or without a computer’s operating system to tell us what’s available and what isn’t. In Ed’s design, letters are a playground, and play can have purpose. Today, I instill that outlook in the university classrooms where I teach, inspiring my beginning through advanced typography students to create playful, expressive, and meaningful designs.”
April Greiman Designer; Artist
“Embarrassed to say, but I barely know Ed. And, OMG, how could I not know Ed, with a nickname like ‘Big Daddy’? Maaaaaybe saw him for five minutes once in his CalArts office 25 years ago, and then again at his RedCat art opening. But, he’s a big talent. And his artwork that I saw at RedCat touched my heart.”
Terry Lee Stone Writer; Creative Strategist
“Ed Fella: the real deal.
“Generous, iconoclastic, sophisticatedly kooky.
“The greatest exit-level designer ever.
“Best wishes for new adventures, Ed.”
Kali Nikitas Chair, MFA Graphic Design Program, BFA, Communication Arts, Otis College of Art and Design
Many people will comment on your guidance and talent. In my case, it is more important to tell the world the following: that you sent me an special gift at a time when I really needed a friend.
Since I have worked at Otis, you have attended every special event that I have hosted. Your support has meant the world to me and you have been more of a teacher since I graduated than during school. That is the best kind of teacher.
I wish you all the happiness in the world.
Marian Bantjes Designer; Typographer; Writer; Illustrator
“Ed does it better.”
Warren Lehrer Writer; Designer; Educator
About Michael Dooley Michael Dooley is the creative director of Michael Dooley Design and teaches History of Design, Comics, and Animation at Art Center College of Design and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is also a Print contributing editor and author.View all posts by Michael Dooley →