Unit Editions’ new book captures the enduring legacy of designer and rulebreaker Ed Fella
Ed Fella’s unique, deconstructive approach shocked the mid-century design industry, drawing both admiration and criticism from his peers
- Daniel Milroy Maher
- 30 March 2022
Unit Edition’s latest release, Ed Fella: A Life in Images, revisits the work of renowned American graphic designer, artist and educator Ed Fella, known for his inimitable style and penchant for breaking the rules of design. Born in Detroit in 1938, Fella’s initial foray into the world of design began, surprisingly, in the tame world of advertising, where he created press ads and leaflets for the healthcare and automotive industries. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, these uninspiring commercial jobs put food on the table, but it was in more experimental and conceptual design that his passion truly lay. For decades, Fella honed this side of his craft in the hours outside of his day job, pushing boundaries and making connections with various art collectives throughout the city that encouraged out-of-the-box thinking. But it wasn’t until 1985 that he finally made the decision to leave advertising and return to education, first enrolling as a student at the Center for Creative Studies, then at Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1987, and then, later that year, taking a position as a professor at CalArts. From 1987-2013, when he gave his final lecture, Fella passed on the bountiful wisdom he had accrued throughout his career – all the while continuing to develop his personal style in the background.
For writer and designer David Cabianca, who first came to Unit Editions with the idea for this monograph, capturing the illustrious journey and seminal work of Fella had been a dream of his for many years. “[He] had worked tirelessly to get an Ed Fella monograph into print” explains Adrian Shaughnessy, co-founder and editorial director of Unit Editions. “He’d been let down by one or two publishers and came to us in the hope that we could get it published.” David approached the team with an abundance of photographs of Fella’s work, which he had shot in his studio in California. He wanted to transform these into a cohesive visual essay that would be a fitting tribute to his personal practice and approached Fella himself to create the edit from the thousands of images he had on hand. “The task of selecting and partnering the work was something that only Ed could do,” says Adrian. “Our job was to produce a workable grid that accommodated the large amount of text that surrounds it.”
Spanning 316 pages, this impressive visual essay contains a wide range of Fella’s artworks, including sketchbook pages and collages; examples from various illustration and print ad commissions; Polaroids and photographs; and many of his “instantly-recognisable” type-based flyers. Typography in particular was an area in which Fella made a name for himself and two of his infamously experimental typefaces, OutWest and FellaParts, were seen as “pioneering” during the rise of digital fonts, going on to be used and referenced in many mainstream designs. Fella’s typographic work was frequently the subject of debate, with some designers deeming it too chaotic and jarring, while others felt that it was genius, displaying a truly unique approach to the medium. This type of controversy also extended to other areas of Fella’s practice, including his graphic work, which, like his typefaces, frequently broke design convention. But for Fella, his disregard for the rules was key to his ability to push the boundaries of his craft, and a large part of why his name has lasted through the years.
Speaking on why Unit Editions felt it important to preserve Fella’s legacy, Adrian says “There are so many reasons why Ed’s career and visual style is worth capturing. Firstly, the way he transitioned from commercial design (working in the Detroit auto business, designing press ads and brochures) to the world of self-directed art and design – lots of us dream of doing this, but few of us achieve it.” He goes on: “[Ed] was part of that ground-breaking period when graphic design became intellectualised and butted up against various postmodern theories… I’d also add that his unselfconscious and bold mix of art world intuition with the norms of graphic messaging is close to unique. It makes him nearer to Paul Klee than Paul Rand, but graphic designers recognise a fellow traveller.”
Ed Fella: A Life in Images is out now and available to purchase through Unit Editions.
Unit Editions: Ed Fella: A Life in Images (Copyright © Unit Editions, 2022)
About the Author
Daniel joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in February 2019 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. He graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Journalism in 2015. He is also co-founder and editor of SWIM, an annual art and photography publication.