American graphic designer, Ed Fella has been referred to as the ‘Graphic Godfather’ and ‘the contemporary master of hand-drawn typography’. A number of world-leading institutions hold his work, including the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum (NYC) and the Museum of Modern Art (NYC). Ed Fella is also a recipient of the Chrysler Award (1997) and the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) Medal (2007). GSM14 takes a look at the work of Ed Fella…
The Early Years
Ed graduated from technical school in Detroit in 1957. He studied typography, pasteup and illustration. For the next 30 years he worked in the local advertising industry. He may well have ended his career as a largely anonymous commercial artist. However, at the age of 47, he had a fundamental shift in direction. Ed left the industry and went back to school. He enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programme at Cranbrook Academy of Art. This change allowed Ed to explore his creative curiosity unchained from the constraints of commercial design. Following this period, he began describing himself as an ‘exit-level designer’.
Teaching, Traveling & Exhibiting
Upon graduating in 1987, Fella took a teaching post at CalArts. This allowed him to travel across the United States and around the world holding lectures and exhibitions. He retired from teaching in 2013 but was invited to keep his studio on campus. This is where he continues his persistent, enthusiastic exploration of the intersection between art and design. He also makes himself available to students and now describes himself as an ‘exit-level educator’.
Style & Work
We can see Ed Fella’s influence everywhere today. However, in the 1980s, his deconstructive style was truly unique. It is a testament to this uniqueness that he has achieved the same creative freedom as a painter or sculptor. He often poses the questions—what is art? What is design?
Much of Ed’s typographic work takes a strong artistic approach, such as this example, ‘B for Bunch’. It highlights how art and typography can merge, being neither one nor the other. Shows how graphic design does not always have to have a practical and efficient use. And how it can be expressive and free just like a painting.
Fella enjoys breaking the rules. As a result, he has created two infamous experimental typefaces; Outwest and FellaParts. These pushed the boundaries of what constitutes type and as a result were pioneering during the introduction of digital fonts. Even though both typefaces are over the top, numerous mainstream designs have used them.
Ed’s curiosity for Typography has led him to photographing and collating found typography over the years. In particular, street art and signage. A selection of these photographs, taken during trips through Australia and America, were edited into his book ‘Letters on America’. The flip-style book captures typography as it exists around us—weathered, imperfect, distorted, and very real.
Moving to his own beat, Fella creates flyers for his many lectures and appearances. However, he does not create them for promotional purposes but instead, gives them out at the event itself as a keepsake. These flyers combine found objects, hand-drawn elements and snippets of type. They form multi-layered references to the event subject and / or location.
Fella is a prolific drawer. He also experiments with collage and mixed media by photographing and collating found typography. He calls this work his ‘Potential Avant Garde Graphic Design for Begone Eras’. It’s almost always done in his sketch books. After 40 years, the result is a collection of over a hundred such books.
As “an agitator, experimentalist, educator and an inspiration to a new generation of type designers” Ed Fella raises questions. Questions about what constitutes ‘success’ as an artist. Why do some people hold a belief that a commercial artist is somehow a ‘failed’ artist? What is art? What is design?.