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Ed Fella: Reshaping Contemporary Typography and Graphic Design

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 is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Here I am in 1960 at my drawing board at LeBeau Studios, on the 37th floor of a Detroit high-rise,
which, for all I know, could now be one of those abandoned city sky-scrapers.

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.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
A poster I designed with “tools of the trade” from the “all hand work” era. Each object was done by one of the illustrators or designers working in the studio at the time. I did the box cutter.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
This text for a 1964 ad in the Detroit Art Directors Annual became our mantra. This, by the way, is a type proof, something you don’t see anymore. Needless to say the word “hack” caused quite a bit of consternation at the time.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Most of my graphic design career was spent on automotive and health care work. You
might say that was our bread and butter.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
These are examples of “design illustration": two 1971 advertisements
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.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
As an illustrator, I worked in various cartoon styles
for various auto companies for a set number of years, in my case 30.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Lettering done in a “skewed” turn of the century type style. It (detail) was for a 1967 album cover put out by a local piano player where the irregular lettering style makes reference to the time period of the music.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Car illustrations for the 1964 “Chevy Story” done in line and wash overlay. I did all the cars from 1912 through 1964. This is an example of the kind of craft that was necessary for mechanical illustrations. I had some help from the amazing car illustrators and “pencilers” (the guys who helped with the drawing and research of the car models) who worked in the studio at that time. But still, this was quite a learning experience for me. It also points to the level of skill needed for professional work in the 1960’s

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
A mid 1960s cartoon illustration for an office joke hung in coffee room. This type of “fun” also served as “style” experiments for possible illustrations and the reps would even sometimes take them out to show to art directors. They were always looking for something new and sometimes it did lead to an assignment.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Surrounded by highly skilled technical illustrators, I loved getting it “wrong”. A 1964 experimental piece that actually won a Bronze medal in a juried show. Of course, the judges understood the joke, and used it to make an ironic comment on the skill level of all the other work.

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.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Two “calls” to reconsider the art deco style (called Moderne) of the 1930s again in the late 1950s. Needless to say, it didn’t go over to well at the time. Hand lettered photostat posters: 1959

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
A early 1960s silk screen poster combining art deco with op art.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Art deco lettering for commercial projects in the early 1970s.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Late 1960s commercial projects using art deco lettering.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
1970s “style” sheet featuring my art deco lettering examples...

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
...and combined with art deco lettering would be illustrations done in a similar style. However the compositions and typography surrounding it would be contemporary with the 1970s.

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.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
My style sheet for “mechanical cartooning” which is what I called my art deco (shiny shoe) illustration style.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
“Shiny shoe” illustrations from the 1970s: client and propose, unfortunately, no longer remembered.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
1970’s illustration: client and propose lost in time.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
...another example and another chair, this time with nobody it, and again, no memory of “what for”.

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!

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
I do remember about this is that it was for a newspaper promotion and was done with “Cell-O-Tack” color overlays, with were waxed sheets placed over the area, trimmed with an X-Acto” knife, then peeled off, leaving the color on the part needed.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Two illustrations done with circle guide templates, Rapidiograph pens and Dr. Martin’s Dyes, specially made for illustrators because the colors reproduced so beautifully. The one on the right is, unfortunately a bad photograph of the original. And as is so often the case, I no longer have the original or the reproduction.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
To this day, I still continue with so much of this same style, although I no longer have any clients to worry about.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
I still use the my same ellipse guides and Prismacolor pencils from so many decades ago.

Ed Fella is an artist, typographer, educator and freethinking graphic designer who reshaped contemporary typography and graphic design.
Here are some recent pieces done in the style of the 1960s and 70s, the one on the left a collage that actually uses photostat bits of my lettering from the 70’s and the one on the right done in the “old print” collage manner of the Push Pin era.

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!

5 comments:

  1. Having worked with Ed in Detroit in it's glory years I can attest to his wonderfully controlled wildness and dedication to a project buy I also and always stand in awe of his inspiring drive.

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  2. Great collection and wonderful post.Thanks a lot for sharing with us.I'll visit your blog again.

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  3. This is pure awesomeness. If I were to choose which era to live on because of the graphic design and artwork, I would dwell in the 70s. Vintage is beauty, I knew it because of Fella's designs.

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  4. Pretty remarkable post. I simply came across your blog and desired to say that I have really enjoyed searching your blog posts.

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  5. It was really nice post! Thanks a lot for sharing…

    ReplyDelete

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