Ed Fella: A Life in Images
Lorraine Wild, Rick Poynor, David Cabianca
Unit Editions, 2022
Starting out in the commercial design studios of 1950s Detroit, Ed Fella (b. 1938) spent 30 years practising professionally as a graphic designer and illustrator with client-based work for the auto industry, healthcare, and retail sectors.
At the same time, he states, he was building “an alternative practice of experimental design and typography work, done pro bono for arts organisations, while pursuing personal investigations into art and photography”.
Now, thanks to the generosity of over 600 Kickstarter backers, there is a book that charts Fella’s epic creative journey. Ed Fella: A Life in Images includes a wide selection from his 60 years of work across, effectively, his two careers.
A 316pp visual essay forms the centrepiece of the book. Designed by Fella in his own inimitable style, this is a visual history of a remarkable life in images, as told by the man himself.
This section contains a wide range of Fella’s artworks, sketchbook pages and collages; examples from various illustration and print ad commissions; Polaroids and photographs; alongside many of his instantly-recognisable type-based flyers.
The book also features an introduction by Katherine McCoy; essays by Lorraine Wild, Rick Poynor and David Cabianca — focusing on Fella’s long career, his extensive sketchbook work and his flyers, respectively — and an Afterword by his daughter, Andrea Fella.
In 1987, Fella left professional practice to go to graduate school and spent the next 30 years as an educator (now faculty emeritus) at CalArts where he negotiated the postmodern design eruptions of the 1980s and 90s, before arriving at a position of eminence within the world of art and design.
It was as he embarked in his career as a teacher that Fella redefined himself as an ‘exit-level’ designer and created an independent body of work which simultaneously sits outside, but is also allied with, what he regards as a professional ‘commercial art’ vernacular.
Much of this work — such as his largely type-based double-sided flyers — emulates the key markers of graphic design, but is created without the constraints of project definitions, even clients, budgets or schedules.
“I’m not an amateur or an outsider artist, I’m an outlier,” he states of his position. “But there was a lot of study, reading and thinking that went into the things [I made], but not necessarily consciously while I was doing them.”
In deconstructing his initial career, Fella says that he has been able to reinvent it as an art practice: “Reviewing the work in the first half of my career, there is a foreshadowing of the later speculative work; and the later work is, in turn, shadowed by my initial professional work.”
The relationship between these two phases, as he suggests, remains the essence of his long career as a graphic designer, illustrator, educator, and artist — all of which is celebrated in this book.