Ed Fella: History, Commercial Art, Art and the American Vernacular

This past Thursday a group of WCC students joined me in visiting a retrospective of Ed Fella’s work at CCS in Detroit. It was the first event in an optional day-long field trip I created to replace the typical last-day-of-the-semester activities for both of my current classes: History of Graphic Design (GDT-101) and InDesign Graphics (GDT-107). Ed’s retrospective dovetailed perfectly with our Postmodern lecture in the history class.

Despite arriving later than planned, the trip went smoothly and included a nice long DIA visit, a quick MoCAD walk-through, a Utrecht supply run, and finally, a ridiculous dinner at Fatburger. The day in Detroit was time well-spent for everyone. Leaving the classroom is important for a number of reasons.

First, it gives students a wider sense of the industry they’re pursuing. Graphic design instructors have a responsibility to expose students to the field as quickly as possible: the more they see, the better. This is particularly important at the Associates Degree level where field prep-time is condensed to 2-years. Second, the perspective shift helps to reenergize interest in the subject matter. It helps punctuate and galvanize classroom topics. Physical objects always reveal more about themselves than their on-screen counter-parts.

It's easy to get a sense of Ed’s eclectic style by Googling some of his classic work, like the black-and-white posters he did for the Detroit Focus Gallery in the early 1980’s, but his camera-ready mechanicals tell a more complex story. Clearly, he found as much enjoyment in his working process as he did the end results, which must explain the endless hours of cutting, pasting, and assembling. The layers of paper highlight his organizational priorities, the mistakes he made (and maybe corrected), and also his deep familiarity with the reproduction process. Despite the random look of the final products, there’s not a single ill-considered pen stroke or paper scrap—even if it’s an accidental bit of random chance that Ed simply allowed to exist.

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