An Interview with Edward Fella

By Michael Dooley

This interview was first published in 1994 in Emigre #30.

Michael Dooley: How did you feel about being referred to - as you were in Steve’s article - as one of the “new young Turks”?

Ed Fella: [laughs] I’m 56 years old, I’m hardly a young Turk. So it was kind of funny that somebody can call you a young Turk when you’re an old man, or almost. I’m not as old as Paul Rand, though.

I’ve been around since the late ‘50s. I spent 30 years as a “hack” in the Detroit commercial artist business. I was an advertising designer, illustrator, I did lettering, all sorts of things. But I also did a body of work outside the professional work in the studio system, which was the more experimental stuff, either self-published or published to promote artists and photographers; what’s now called “personal” or “cultural” graphics.

MD: Are you giving your students at CalArts a model for professional practice?

EF: I don’t see how anyone can say I’m not a model for professional practice when Template Gothic - one of the typefaces Barry Deck did under my auspices - has become the face of the ‘90s. You see it everywhere. But Barry couldn’t say “I did this because my teacher showed it to me,” so he uses this story - which was kind of funny when it first appeared in Emigre - about how Template Gothic is based on a laundromat sign he saw. Now it’s become a whole myth in graphic design history. His I.D. 40 piece even starts out with this story. But this poster (left) is the piece that was the inspiration for Template Gothic. I’d shown it to him and said, “To design a typeface using templates, the trick is to fill in the breaks.” But really, it was part of a whole project of font design using the vernacular and ideas of irregularity and disintegration, as well as an ideology of anti-mastery. These were exercises that yielded lots of typefaces from both students and faculty. The important thing is that this work came out of a particular environment. I practice and preach!

On the other hand, some of my work isn’t meant as a model for all professional practice. It’s an aside to professional practice. Sometimes it could be a critique of professional practice, a parody of professional practice. It could also give one an understanding of professional practice by bringing certain art practices into design work.

The Focus Gallery posters were specialty design, a very small end of design. A thousand, fifteen hundred, of them were printed and sent out each month; that was the extent of the alternative space “market share” in Detroit, and it wasn’t going to get any bigger than that. And these things looked like the kind of art that was shown at the gallery, which wasn’t popular art or boutique art or art for the masses. It was art that couldn’t make it in commercial galleries. Nobody wanted to buy it. It was too far out or too ephemeral or too critical. But it was intelligent art, complex and hip. It was about what was going on in the art world, it was part of it, even if it was done by so-called entry-level artists. So the flyers were perfectly suited to the message and the audience.

MD: But isn’t there a danger that other designers will misuse these forms?

EF: A danger that somebody would look at that Focus Gallery stuff and do what with it? Make car catalogs that look like that? Or stop signs?

That actually did happen in Detroit, which I thought was hilarious. In the early ‘80s, they did car catalogs for the California market that looked like April Greiman’s New Wave graphics. And I’m sure that, at first, somebody said, “Look at these New Wave graphics: they’re no model for professional practice,” and a few years later, they were used to sell Chevrolets in L.A. [laughs] Of course, New Wave graphics are everywhere now. They’re so assimilated into the mainstream, you don’t even notice them. So what’ll happen when a car catalog has disintegrating type in it? Probably nothing. It’ll all be so watered down.

MD: Isn’t there a sameness to the look of a lot of student work?

EF: Obviously there is, but you see that similarity happening with what you call the “avant-garde” or “graphic edge” or any of those terms used to define the Zeitgeist. But I don’t see our students as a bunch of clones. Our whole program is against this idea of “do as I do.” We don’t offer the work we do as any kind of a model to emulate or copy. We don’t say “This is the way to work” the way the Modernists like Paul Rand offered their own practice and their own philosophy and ideology as “the truth.” He still does, right? That’s what he’s railing about in his latest book, Design, Form, and Chaos. You can understand Paul Rand’s context, since he’s a Modernist. And he can be forgiven for that, since he was one of the greats of that particular tradition. But he’s history.

MD: [laughs]

EF: I mean he’s wonderful history. I wish I would be such history. I hope to be history, too, but I won’t be as big a history as Paul Rand. Hopefully I’ll be a tiny little footnote, whereas Paul Rand will have volumes.

There’s a whole other kind of history that has nothing to do with esthetics or design history. If you’re writing a history of the automobile industry and American economics, I’m sure some commercial, totally anonymous car catalog I did in 1976 for Camaro had a bigger impact on the American system as a whole than some flyer I did for the Detroit Focus Gallery that’s in the design history books, that’s had a big influence on a whole generation of students, blah blah blah, or that’s made me a young Turk standing “sheepishly at the center of a debate over the future of graphic design in the U.S.,” as Peter Hall put it in Design Week magazine. [laughs]

MD: If not “do as I do,” what sort of guidelines do you impart to the students in your classes?

EF: We offer students a way to work through what they themselves want to express, a kind of authenticity that comes from their own experiences, likes, dislikes, tastes, abilities, politics.

MD: What if, in finding their own voice, the students become loud to the point of self-indulgence?

EF: I always joke about that with my students. I say, “You poor guys, you’ve got to go out and work and do all the stuff. When you’re my age you can retire and then you can indulge yourself.” I worked hard for thirty years, and now I’m not going to do any more commercial work. All I want to do in my “repose” is wallow in esthetic self-indulgence!

MD: What was your early education like?

EF: I went to a very good trade school in Detroit in the mid-’50s, and learned my “trade,” which at that time was called “Commercial Art.” We studied twentieth century Modernism, especially the Bauhaus idea and ideal - just as Paul Rand did. In the 1930s, he was already on to the European art movements - the Bauhaus, Cubism - that had been taking place in Europe. And he used them brilliantly in American business. That was his great genius.

Now it’s just a little more formal. We have academic programs that allow people to connect directly into art and art movements and art practices and art politics and art ideologies and art discourses. Generally, design programs are situated in art schools. CalArts, especially. Cranbrook. Yale.

MD: What about design movements? Do you feel that a lot of what’s coming out of the hothouses is lacking in a sense of design history?

EF: Not really. I have to admit that it’s not work like the eclectic or the historicist work that was done in the late ‘50s and ‘60s - which I went through myself - when the Art Deco and Art Nouveau styles came back, or the early Post-Modernism that had a lot of rehashing of traditional styles in a referential way. The work being done currently is not quite so easily connected to design history.

We just happen to be in a freer period, which has a lot to do with the technological revolution that the computer has allowed. It also has a lot to do with the kind of philosophical revolution that critical theories like Deconstruction have brought about. So there’s a purer form of work going on right now, I think.

The Focus Gallery piece that Heller singled out in his article for Eye was actually commenting on the endless selection offered by design history, but I don’t think he looked at that. I don’t know how much of my work he’s actually seen.

MD: Do you think he’d have a better understanding of what you’re doing if he saw a broader spectrum of your work?

EF: Yeah. Heller’s a very sharp guy. If I met him, the first thing I’d say is “Hey, Steve, I’m one of these guys from the Milton Glaser generation.” He should do a book on me. I’d be a perfect candidate. An old commercial artist!

One of the things I’ve always liked about Heller is that he’s continuously seeking out these old anonymous, forgotten commercial artists. So much of what he writes is historical. And he does wonderful books, which I think are a great service. I just bought one on Italian Art Deco, the one he did with his wife, Louise Fili. Beautiful little book.

MD: Is it possible, with all the new design work being done, that certain classical forms might go away?

EF: I don’t believe that at all. Those forms have to do with rationality and pragmatism and legibility. I don’t see how they can ever go away. I don’t see that people are going to make traffic signage or brain surgeon manuals that can’t be read, to use the most ridiculous examples.

The form of graphic design has to function to carry the content. Look at Gran Fury’s AIDS activist graphics: it looks like advertising. And rightly so, in order to reach people in a language they can understand. If you wanted to do pamphlets about access to government programs for the homeless and the indigent, you wouldn’t do it in the Ray Gun style. I don’t know if that’s what Heller’s afraid people would do, that they would somehow mix up these styles, that a Stop sign would appear in a disintegrated typeface you can’t read. I always tell students to “stabilize the referent” when necessary.

We have courses in information design at CalArts. We want our students to understand typography as being appropriate to its content, and it has to be structured to further the message. But Heller’s looking at a lot of cultural graphics, which don’t necessarily have to do that.

One problem with Heller is, for example, he never quite figured out what Output was all about. He was looking at it in this naive Modernist context of a simple dichotomy between beautiful and ugly, good and bad, instead of seeing it in the context of the whole discourse that surrounds art practices and cultural practices.

Output was a free play of endless printed stuff, signifiers that deliberately signified nothing. It’s like Greenbergian formalism; it isn’t about narrative or content, it’s about paint-on-canvas. On the other hand, there’s plenty of other precedents in art and literature for not being able to say anything, because the world is just too awful. You know: “How can there be poetry after the Holocaust?” And the Cranbrook students, whether they did this deliberately or not, were in that kind of tradition, that whole twentieth century Nihilism that says, “It’s all hopeless, everything’s inevitable, nothing can be done or even said.”

So if Heller had understood that, then I could see how he could have attacked it. Then he could have said, “These silly students!” From a leftist or a socially conscious and activist position he could say, as I would, “That’s a ridiculous statement to make: of course there’s plenty to say. You’ve got to keep fighting all the time. And communicating. And no one more so than artists and designers.”

MD: Steve also identifies himself as a leftist.

EF: I would assume he does. In his columns, he always talks about the ‘60s, like the time he got raided when he was the editor of Screw magazine. And he’s done books on activist and protest graphics.

MD: Why do you imagine Steve’s having trouble with the new work?

EF: I don’t know why, to tell you the truth. It’s possibly because it’s easy to like all this old commercial art stuff - who wouldn’t like Italian Art Deco graphics? - and it’s difficult to understand the new stuff.

I also wonder if he feels a personal loyalty to Paul Rand, who’s going down in his last hurrah. It’s understandable, as pathetic as it is, for the poor old guy to make a last ditch effort to deny and denigrate everything that’s going on now. All the reviews of Paul Rand’s book basically say that. Even though everyone admires Paul Rand as a great designer of the past, they feel sad for his lack of understanding. But it’s not understandable for someone like Steven Heller, who’s got nothing at stake. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He’s the critic and the historian and the commentator. He should really understand the contemporary dynamic.

MD: Even if he feels a loyalty to Rand . . .

EF: I don’t know that. I really shouldn’t speculate on it . . .

MD: Well, wouldn’t you think it’s possible for critics to realize that Rand’s work has been assimilated into the culture of design to the point that this new work is part of a continuum?

EF: I certainly feel that, yes. I would agree with you one hundred percent. That’s why I don’t understand why Paul Rand and Massimo Vignelli are so upset by this new work. That’s why I’m not upset by it. That’s why I love it, because it’s the next generation. I don’t think there’s such a big break. Good solid work is always good solid work. That’s why I don’t see myself as a young Turk. I think my work is as carefully done and as “beautiful” as anybody’s work from any previous time.

I don’t like to use terms like “good,” “bad,” “beautiful,” “ugly,” because they continually take on different meanings. The eighteenth century thought that beauty was in the eye of the beholder, but it’s in the culture of the beholder. Every culture has its own standards of beauty. Design has opened up to accept the high culture and the low culture, the vernacular, amateur art, outsider art, so-called primitive art and just about everything else you can identify or catalog: it’s all part of the mix.