The Palace of Typographic Masonry
Ed Fella: The Joy of Making
Sixty years in the profession – of which the first thirty were spent working as a commercial artist in Detroit, and the second as a lecturer and artist in Los Angeles. A huge body of work. And I only have a few paragraphs to explain why every graphic designer should know him: self-described ‘exit level designer’ Ed Fella… But what the hell, let’s give it a try!
My interest in Ed Fella was sparked by ‘Letters on America’, a now-iconic collection of Polaroid pictures that he started taking at the age of 50, during his travels across the US. Fella’s attention is drawn to the vernacular: everyday storefronts for bars and launderettes, and dilapidated signs for motels and liquor stores. The images of this gritty American typographical landscape become important sources of inspiration for new work. Travelling, taking photos, processing them and making new work with the results – I can’t help but like that M.O.
Ed is an incredibly productive designer, who works day in, day out on new drawings and collages. It often starts with a scrap of paper that he finds on the street, or a doodle that he draws while on the phone, without giving it much thought – ‘automatic writing’. His tools of choice are a Bic 4 colour ballpoint pen, coloured pencils, a pair of scissors and glue. His work produces infectious, often somewhat cryptic, typographic gobstoppers that are full of poetry. Looking at them, you wonder: how did he make this? There’s always something new to discover.
Fella’s ‘After the Event’ flyers are responses to lectures held by designers and artists at the California Institute of the Arts or to his own activities. They always use the same broadside format, they’re printed in black and white, and he always distributes them by post. In the flyers, Fella fearlessly experiments with recycling his own work, as well as combining it with more recent typefaces and drawings. Crazy and over the top? You bet! But they offer more besides. The erudite professor Fella draws from the entire history of design, and often pokes fun at the profession and offers self-deprecating reflections on his own work.
For generations of CalArts students, Fella has proven a dedicated and accessible teacher, always generous when it comes to giving his time and attention. From his little office at the Institute’s graphic design department, Ed maintains contacts with colleagues the world over. He enjoys talking about art, the graphic design profession and lots more besides. On occasion – and I say this with the greatest respect and admiration – this means he has something of ‘the mad professor’ about him. His work has an immediate impact and is unmistakeably made by Ed Fella. You can’t copy his style… don’t even think of trying. It’s extraordinary graphic art, and there’s a mass of it. Now that Ed is approaching eighty, hopefully more and more of his work will be carefully stored, documented, included in major museum collections and published. So that other people can enjoy it and draw inspiration from his approach!