“Rules Are Taught to Be Broken Only Exceptionally”, flyer, How We Learn What We Learn conference, School of Visual Arts, New York, 1997

In 2010, I curated a selection of Ed Fella’s famous flyers, created “after the fact”—as he put it—for his own lectures, in an exhibition about Surrealism and graphic design at the Moravian Gallery in the Czech Republic. I wanted to propose a different way of looking at Fella’s work, which had been, at that point, mostly discussed in relation to postmodernism in graphic design. When the exhibition was ready, I walked around it with Marek Pokorny, who was then director of the city’s fine and applied arts gallery. Pokorny had never seen Fella’s work before; his background as a critic and curator was in fine art, not design. The wall packed tight with Fella’s 11×17-inch flyers, organized on a grid, seized his attention immediately. They were visually spectacular. They were highly original—the product of a unique mentality. And they were utterly obsessive. Art is always obsessive. It’s the relentlessness of an entirely self-chosen enterprise that helps to set the activity apart as “art.” Pokorny didn’t need to know anything about contemporary graphic design discourse or the more quotidian intricacies of typography and layout to appreciate what Fella had achieved. He understood that he was looking at the creations of an artist.

I begin an essay about Ed Fella by emphasizing his art side because there is no way to appreciate fully what he was doing in these pieces without addressing both art and design. The personal work he created from 1987 to the present, after 30 years of service as a designer in Detroit, exists in a zone where the two fields mesh and intertwine. As with plenty of graphic designers, the dice could have landed differently. Fella had the talent to pursue art and earned a scholarship at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis. Nevertheless, after graduating from high school in Detroit, he chose to stay in the city and continue working for commercial clients. But he never lost the urge to make art. 

In the flyers Fella produced at CalArts, where he taught from 1987 to 2013, he could do entirely what he wanted. The official announcements for these lectures by Fella and other visiting designers were created in advance, usually by a student. Fella used his double-sided, hand-made flyers, which he printed at a local shop, as a space for pursuing his own concerns as a self-styled “exit-level designer.” By this he meant he had reached a point in his design career where he was acting as his own “client,” and no longer had to worry about the routine aspects of communication. He could investigate the possibilities of extreme graphic form with complete disregard for the usual constraints, and distribute his flyers after the events were over.

The audience for Fella’s flyers and other graphics—widely shown in magazines, books, and online since the mid-1990s—has primarily been graphic designers. In 2012, an expressive alphabet by Fella graced the cover of the third edition of The Thames & Hudson Dictionary of Graphic Design and Designers, confirming his international standing. The writing and thinking about his work has come from design writers and educators. A key figure here is Lorraine Wild, his colleague from Cranbrook Academy of Art (Fella earned an MFA there in 1987) and CalArts. Wild, Fella’s best explicator, wrote about him in Emigre magazine (no. 17, 1991), where their CalArts colleague Jeffery Keedy also interviewed him; it’s a critical document of its era, and highly recommended. Michael Worthington, another CalArts teacher, curated a joint show with Geoff McFetridge at the REDCAT Gallery in Los Angeles, backed up by an essential catalog. Fella’s close associates understood and cherished him best—a decade after retirement he retains an office in the design school, like an exemplary exhibit—but their advocacy positioned him, inevitably, as a designer.

Fella’s work has been acquired by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (where he had a big show in 2017), by the Merrill C. Berman Collection, by Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and by the Architecture and Design department at MoMA, which has 11 of his flyers. The MoMA selection, as presented online, is revealing. It seems to identify Fella as a typographical experimentalist and anchors him firmly to “design”. There is no sign here of the hand-drawn imagery and collaged elements with which his work also abounds. In his years as a commercial artist in Detroit, Fella was hugely versatile, able to draw in any style a job required. In the flyers he often alluded to and reworked this earlier iconography. The wildly distorted letterforms and design concerns are only part of the story. 

The misrepresentation by omission is not especially surprising. Fella had a working life as a graphic designer and then, in his second phase, he taught graphic design. He identifies now and always as a graphic designer. While his later output continues to offer a profound challenge to constrained thinking about what graphic communication can be, he made no attempt to direct this work to a wider audience for art. I asked him recently whether he had a list of his exhibitions. Even the most rudimentary artist’s catalog provides a list; artists build their careers by exhibition. Sorry to say, I have never kept any comprehensive lists of anything—lectures, exhibitions, publications, awards, etc.,” he replied. “Unlike artists. The typical mindset of a graphic designer from my era: ‘Who could ever possibly want or need it?’” Fella enjoyed two design careers. There was no pressing need for art scene endorsement.

For an exhibition of Fella’s work at the University of Reading, in the UK, which I curated, we blew up details from a few of his flyers to make wall panels. They are highly complex in their graphic layering and, unsurprisingly, work even better at a bigger scale; Fella would often create some passages at a larger size and then reduce them to fit on the paper flyer artworks. Studying our blow-ups brought home to me more clearly than ever that he could easily have made large limited-edition wall pieces as high-quality prints for art gallery representation, exhibition, and sale. Except he chose not to for the most part and kept the outcome at graphic design scale on a modest printed sheet, which he then gave away to anyone who wanted a copy.

Yet the question of the work’s relationship to art has always seemed central for Fella. In one of his most curious self-initiated projects he imagined a “counterfactual” personal history in which he became a painter, rather than a designer. He produced miniature drawn illustrations of what his paintings might have looked like in the late 1950s and 1960s. Compared to his extraordinarily unfettered inventions as an exit-level designer, these notional abstracts look old-fashioned and much less original, as though he was acknowledging that he’d made the right career choice. But was there also something a little rueful about this fantasy of a path not taken? At the very least, the project confirmed the fundamental role of art in his identity.

Fella long ago expressed hope that a “smart critic” would at last explain the complexities of reference and meaning in his designs. In 2010, he said this to Paper magazine: “So far nobody’s been able to theorize the work or categorize it because there is no such category that encompasses art, poetry, and graphic design, or typography and lettering all as a single practice.” I explored some of these issues in an essay about his fabulously inventive sketchbook drawings and collages, written for Ed Fella: A Life in Images, edited by David Cabianca and published via Kickstarter in January by Unit Editions. I am particularly interested in the way he applied working methods, compositional structures and styles of imagery derived from his early awareness of Surrealism in the 1950s when he was studying art and design. Max Ernst and Joan Miró were two of the most significant Surrealists for Fella. In the essay, I reproduce a 1933 drawing-collage by Miró from the MoMA collection. Fella’s later sketchbook compositions in this tradition are far more developed in their formal daring and intricacy, and in their super-fluent manipulation of graphic space.

The new book is aimed once again at designers. What Fella needs next—through publishing and exhibition—is a critically astute audience beyond the graphic design world that can appreciate and, yes, theorize his work in ways that are unlikely to happen within design on current evidence. What would experts in concrete poetry, language-based art, or the history of the Surrealist word-image make of his oeuvre? They are unlikely to be aware of it at present; after all, Fella is conserved and classified in the design department at MoMA, not the art department. Rigid disciplinary distinctions are inadequate to understand hybrid work like Fella’s. 

We ask designers to be reflective. Fella’s body of work since the mid-1980s is reflection and self-reflection taken to the highest level. He became an artist whose subject matter is the practice, technical procedures, historical and vernacular conventions, visual and verbal language, and the everyday detritus of design. Visual exploration demonstrating this degree of originality and self-awareness will always have plenty to teach all kinds of viewers. A much fuller publication of Fella’s largely unseen sketchbooks could be key to his wider discovery. That day will surely come.

“Ed Fella: Exit Level Design, 1985-2012”, curated by Rick Poynor, is at the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading, UK, until March 25, 2022.