Over the past few months I've been corresponding with Ed Fella via email. Back in September I had the pleasure of speaking to him on the phone. We spoke for about an hour and a half discussing design and illustration. Ed told me of his philosophies on the subject and how his work became popular and accepted as influential in the design community. A modest man, he didn't pin point specific reasons why his work has garnered numerous accolades and so much recognition. He spoke of it as being merely a "quirkiness" in the quality of his work. He identified that same "quirky" quality in the work of other professionals he admires, such as illustrator and designer Ron Rae. During our conversation he explained to me how the work that "took off" for him wasn't initially done for paying clients. It was more personal work than not. It began when he set out to create some brochures for a non profit client with the agreement that he could incorporate his "personal" typographic style into the piece. The deal was made and the project completed. It was circulated, picked up and featured in a design publication, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ed Fella is one of the most prominent graphic designers of our time, and as you can imagine, a conversation with Ed Fella is both inspiring and enlightening. My talk with him was so inspiring that I came away wanting to pursue even more of my own personal work in addition to what I do for my clients. Ever since we spoke I've been getting back to basics - stretching the boundaries of my imagination and trying to push myself beyond the limitations of my skills.
Below Ed Fella has put together a partial auto biography, philosophy and history lesson. It ends rather abruptly but Ed has promised more for us in the near future. Below he has accompanied his writings with some of his art, which he explained to me, either hasn't been seen before, or has made rare appearances here and there. This is a proud moment for me and Illustration Pages. I hope you enjoy what Ed Fella has put together for us here today.
Introduction by Lou Simeone
Ed Fella - Artist, Designer, Typographer and Educator
Contributed to Illustration Pages by Ed Fella
I worked in Detroit as a commercial artist from 1957 to about 1987, which makes for a good 30 years. We were called "Commercial Artists" in the 50s and 60s even though we did illustration, lettering, typography, and layout (now called graphic design). Somehow the term fell on hard times by the mid 60s and we were reluctant to use it (except to our mothers) and we all eventually became either Graphic Designers or Illustrators. What many of us did could also be called “Design Illustration”, since we frequently combined all the categories in our projects. I think at the time, Push Pin Studios in New York set these practices into the forefront: we all were part of that subset between strictly literal or realistic illustrators and pure graphic designers who combined text with images and occasionally did a logotype. We were also known as "Decorative Illustrators". I like the use of precise terms as it helps define and contextualize the work we did. For me, giving it a name, is part of understanding a particular history which generated this particular work. It's style and look came from a deliberate consideration about the time and place we were in, in a continuum of styles and practices that we were very much aware of. In other words, we were interested in, and knew our history: a rich and varied past of typography and illustration we saw in the magazines and books we bought and collected.
where I designed and illustrated the images.
In some odd way, which I can only say in retrospect, we seemed intuitively to have rejected what is now called "American Modernism" or the "50's style" for something different and also new - new, ironically, by a reworking of the old. The clean, functional, clarity of a movement that wanted nothing to do with the messy, old fashioned, idiosyncratic "commercial art" with all of it's historical baggage was the prevailing ideal, exemplified by people like Paul Rand and Lester Beall, New York "big idea" advertising, and the flat 50's look of illustration. We jumped back a generation to the 1920's and even further back to the Victorian era and turn of the century for our inspiration. I guess it's what is now called "style-mongering" or "historicism" or even "post-modernism". I would say it was also part of late 50's rebellious youth culture, if not overtly Beatnik, at least our genteel version of it.
for various auto companies for a set number of years, in my case 30.
Two contemporaries who started with me in 1959 at LeBeau Studios, Ron Rae and Bill Kastan, introduced me to the work of many of the classic illustrators like John Held Jr. and Maxfield Parrish. Rae and Kastan were two young guys who had an encyclopedic knowledge of history and most importantly, clip files filled with examples of the work. All this old material had a fascination that we responded to in a way that the then current work somehow didn't seem to have.
My education during my final three years of high school was in commercial art. I attended a public trade school: Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit, (two buses and a streetcar ride to get there every day). It was an amazing learning experience. Looking back on it I can hardly believe my good fortune. We had three solid years of art history, including a year of 20th century modern art (half of it, that is: this was still the mid 50's) and a basic course in design, partially based on the Bauhaus foundation course, as I later found out. But most importantly, we were imbued with an ideology that made no distinction between functional and pure art, seeing them both as equally valid and desirable art practices in our society.
I got my first job after high school as an apprentice at Phoenix Studios in downtown Detroit in 1957. I was paid a dollar an hour for every hour I worked, nothing extra for overtime. Since the minimum wage at the time was 50 cents, it didn't seen so bad to a kid just graduated, who usually worked these kinds of jobs after school. But this was my first real job in a commercial art studio and I was starting a career in what I'd been preparing for in school: what could be more exciting! And it also turned out to be, despite all the hard work, a lot of fun. The art business was open, free wheeling, and casual, you could get away with anything as long as you were more talented and able at your work than a studio could afford in not losing you to the competition. Anyway, within a few months I doubled my rate to $2 an hour and about a year later worked for a salary of $200 a week, more than my father had made as an auto worker in his last years. And as a good motor city kid, even though I still lived at home with my mother, I went out and bought a 1957 Corvette!
One of the specialties of every studio was hand lettering with an expert "lettering man", who did nothing else but work up tight comps and do finish lettering all day (and sometimes all night). I was fascinated by the amazing skills and creativity they had in coming up with variations of lettering sizes and styles. Not having these skills myself, I turned to something that was called "Moderne", a passe style from a previous generation (the 20s and 30s) which seemingly allowed for every mistake that I made in my lettering attempts. I also thought it was really cool (and funny). The only problem was, I couldn't find any current use for it, other than outrage or laughter. I was actually warned by some of the reps that I would be in big trouble if I tried it on any of their jobs. Ironically, by the mid 60s (when it was renamed "Art Deco" by the design historian, Bevis Hiller in England) it became as trendy as could be, and I couldn't do enough of it for all sorts of clients. But it just as quickly fell out of favor and is now again as retro as ever. But I've never stopped that process of reworking both past and vernacular lettering styles. This has, of course, now also become a mainstay in the current practice of so called "postmodernism". Hopefully it will never leave us, or at least not me!