"Mussorgsky=Ravel: Pictures at an Exhibition/Ravel: La Valse/Zubin Mehta/New York Philharmonic," 1979.
Courtesy of LACMA, Marc Treib Collection.

One born in Tokyo in 1929, the other in Detroit in 1938, Awazu Kiyoshi and Ed Fella may seem worlds apart, but their work is connected by an allegiance to individual expression explored at a time when subjectivity in graphic design was discouraged by the stricture of the pervasive international style.

Both Awazu and Fella veered away from commercial clients. The former opted for graphic design projects focused on cultural events and political commentary, his brightly colored work, always dramatic, figurative, illustrative, and narrative. Kanji calligraphy frames characters, floats free within the composition, and fills empty space.

The latter became a design educator, following a thirty-year career in professional practice, choosing to concentrate on personal projects that allowed for experimentation, as long as it had a connection with the alphabet. Fella’s work is freeform and language-based. He draws letters and draws with letters.

Two exhibitions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) provide a unique opportunity to compare their work.

Women: People of the Kumehachi Troupe, 1977, a poster for the Bungakuza Theatrical Company performed at the Tokyo Theater, Shiba.
Courtesy of LACMA, Marc Treib Collection.

Awazu Kiyoshi: Summoning the Outdated, presents an assortment of publications and 25 posters that span the late 1960s through ’70s. The title stems from Awazu’s vision of the designer’s mission, “to extend the rural into the city, foreground the folklore, reawaken the past, and summon back the outdated.”

Awazu, who died in 2009, lived and worked during a turbulent time in Japan, when artists questioned the essence of art and the role of the artist in society. Amidst the destruction of Tokyo during World War II, the future could only be imagined, and Awazu nourished his vivid imagination on a diet of foreign films. He took part in many exhibitions during his lifetime, including the 1965 Persona show alongside other prominent Japanese designers who rejected, “the placeless, unemotional geometries of international-style abstraction and staked a defiant claim for individual voices and traditional references in design.”

Recurring personal icons, like concentric lines, turtles, birds, flowers, and figures (both real and imagined) populate Awazu’s dense and vibrant compositions. In The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Japanese Sculpture poster, Awazu imagined the theme of modern sculpture as a boy with a pencil-head carrying a little girl piggyback while an assortment of objects floated in the space around them.

Poster by Awazu Kiyoshi for “Flower Hall” performed by the Bungakuza Theatrical Company at the Nissei Theater, 1970.
Courtesy of LACMA.

Awazu’s work also incorporates historic symbols appropriated from Japanese visual culture. In Flower Hall, which promotes a play dramatizing the Onin War, Awazu turned to Japanese art history. The imagery of the Buddhist demigod is based on the late 12th century Hell of Excrement scroll, one in a series that portrays the various levels of hell. The 1971 Complete Works of Tsuruya Nanboku poster advertises an anthology of writing that focuses on Japanese ghost stories and folktales. The woodblock illustration by ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kunisada featured in the layout is from an 1828 edition of Nanboku’s Kaidan Iwakura Mannojo (The Ghost Tale of Mannojo of Iwakura). The surrounding border borrows from traditional Japanese playing cards.

Awazu Kiyoshi, poster for the avant-garde film, Double Suicide at Ten no Amijima, 1969.
Courtesy of LACMA.

Ed Fella: Free Work in Due Time includes 288 color Polaroids of hand-scrawled messages and everyday signs documented by Fella during cross-country road trips between 1987 and 2000. A collection of the backs and fronts of one-color flyers from Fella’s idiosyncratic “After the Fact” series cover the wall. Open sketchbooks packed into a display case show off Fella’s colorful letter drawings meticulously illustrated in ballpoint pen, pencil, and collage.

A few early broadsides offer insight into Fella’s highly-personal art, in particular the 1979 offset lithograph, You As Well As Me: The Transition from Modernism to Postmodernism, in which Fella thumbs his nose at the dying movement. A gush of borrowed imagery rips through a strict grid and a formation of carefully positioned type. Fella insisted “while many believe design is about you (the client and audience), the point of view of the designer (me) is inevitably and rightfully revealed through his or her work.”

Ed Fella, Letters in America, Polaroid photographs of vernacular signage and lettering shot by Fella on cross-country road trips between 1987 and 2000.
Courtesy of LACMA.

The exhibition title, Free Work in Due Time, is lifted from one of Fella’s “After the Fact” series of monochromatic faux flyers that he designed for numerous lectures he presented around the world. While the venues that hosted him produced and distributed their own posters to advertise these events, Fella concocted his two-sided versions the day after the lecture took place—whimsical word play expressed through hand-drawn lettering, spliced and diced text, warped and distorted type, cut and pasted in place.

Pages from Ed Fella’s many sketchbooks, 1989–2009, on display in Ed Fella: Free Work in Due Time. Sketches were created using ballpoint pen, colored pencil, and collage.
Courtesy of Susan Merritt.

After a decades-long career, which included a stretch at Designers & Partners in Detroit, Fella returned to school at 49. He entered the graduate program of the Cranbrook Academy of Art’s design department co-chaired at the time by luminaries Katherine and Michael McCoy. Cranbrook’s design department was recognized for its unstructured and interdisciplinary approach. Under the McCoys, students “embraced the complexity of communication, individual expression, and historical references,” and developed a growing appreciation for the low art of the vernacular due in part to Fella, who is frequently quoted as saying of his commercial career, “I was the vernacular.”

Fat Face, 1986, an assignment by Ed Fella while he was an MFA student in Cranbrook’s design department, co-chaired at the time by Katherine and Michael McCoy. Gift of Katherine and Michael McCoy.
Courtesy of LACMA.

Fella’s graduate studies coincided with “a major rupture in the field, as designers wrestled with postmodern theory and the onset of digital technology.” While a student at Cranbrook and afterwards as a faculty member of the California Institute of the Arts, he found himself straddling art and design, choosing to focus exclusively on personal projects that involve hand drawn lettering and typographic experimentation, peppered with a hefty dose of humor.

Both Awazu and Fella intentionally merged genres as they altered the prevailing definition of graphic design and reinterpreted what it meant to be a graphic designer. Subjectivity faced off with objectivity and infiltrated the practice. “Ed Fella showed us that the boundaries of graphic design were just a figment of some other people’s narrow imaginations,” said Rudy VanderLans, co-founder of Emigre. Likewise, Awazu defied such boundaries saying, “design is a tool not an occupation. For me, every aspect of life turns into design.”