Ed Fella wrestles with the distinction between artist and designer

Ed Fella seems to be a ‘designers’ designer’: his name isn’t as starry as the likes of Milton Glaser or Lance Wyman (in the UK at least), but his influence is keenly felt – not least in his explorations of the difference between, and merging of, the worlds of art and design.

That duality is at the heart of a beautiful new book from Unit Editions, Ed Fella: A Life in Images. The book brings together a selection of works spanning six decades of Fella’s practice, from his first 30 years as a professional graphic designer and illustrator working with clients across the auto industry, healthcare, and retail sectors; to his later artistic practice. The book has been designed by Fella himself, and as the title suggests, it focuses on the breadth of his imagery, which delineates the various stages in Fella’s career and how they overlap.

From 1957, Fella spent the next three decades practising professionally in Detroit, all the while building “an alternative practice of experimental design and typography work”, as he puts it, often created pro-bono for arts organisations. During this time he was also pursuing personal investigations into art and photography. In the mid 1980s, Fella left professional practice to go to grad school at Cranbrook, graduating in 1987 and spending the following three decades working as an educator alongside his own creative practice.

Becoming a teacher led him to “redefine myself as an ‘exit-level’ designer”, he writes, creating “an independent body of work which simultaneously sits outside, but is also allied with, what I regard as a professional ‘commercial art’ vernacular”. He adds, “In deconstructing my initial career, I reinvented it as an art practice.”

As you’d expect from such a long and varied career, the breadth of the images is impressive: sketchy typographic woodcuts; playful collages; expressive paintings; motoring illustrations that vary from the technical to the cartoonish and hilarious; slick, minimal icon design; all-singing, all-dancing bold, graphic posters and a wealth of gorgeously witty advertising illustrations. And that’s just in the first half of the book: as Fella’s practice became more art-led, his work took the foundations of his design practice – illustrations, experimental typography, collages of disparate found design ephemera – and makes them into more ‘fine art’-leaning pieces.

During this period, much of Fella’s work used his graphic design nous but applied it to pieces that weren’t constrained by client briefs, project goals or external budgets and schedules. As such, their forms often emulated those of traditional ‘graphic design’ projects: flyers, posters, type samples and so on.

Ed Fella: A Life in Images, Unit Editions

Even so, Fella succinctly spells out the fundamental difference between art and design. “Design is time-bound as a function. But art is timeless…. So I could have an art practice because the work became about me, about the designer himself,” he said in a 2019 interview with David Cabianca, who penned one of the texts in the new book. “Artists make art about themselves or their own ideas…. They express themselves through art and they also express their ideas through art. Whereas as designers, we don’t necessarily do that. We express the client’s ideas by giving them visual form or communicating the client’s needs, so it’s not necessarily our idea. It’s only our idea how it should be communicated or presented.”

 As well as essays by Cabianca (the book’s editor), Lorraine Wild and Rick Poynor, the centrepiece of the book comprises a 316-page visual essay containing a wide range of Fella’s artworks, sketchbook pages and collages; examples from various illustration and print ad commissions; plus Polaroids, photographs and type-based flyers created by Fella with his daughter, Andrea Fella, who also penned the afterword. 

Ed Fella: A Life in Images is published by Unit Editions; uniteditions.com