A conversation between Hey Studio and Ed Fella

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Published:  April 17, 2015
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The Barcelona-based studio Hey is renowned for its bright, playful graphics, which, across its client base, retains its bold minimalism within clean, structured grids. Ed Fella is also known for his playful work, but instead, within the canon of deconstructivism – he utilises sliced up elements, rearranged on gridless pages. Despite the formal differences in their work, however, both studios are influenced by similar ideas: modernism, history and designing for the times.

Apart from the decades that separate the commercial work of Ed Fella and Hey Studio, both practices, while illustrative, appear to approach the blank page from starkly different starting points. Can we begin with an overview of the types of principles, ideas and beliefs that you feel inform your way of working?

Ed Fella:  In a sense I cross-examine the conventions of what is usually expected in a piece of bright and cheerful, clear, clean and straightforward visual communication. I try to complicate things a bit. But for me, that’s easy to say, since I really don’t do client work anymore, only my own self-exploratory projects. On the other hand, I did exactly what was expected in my professional practice during the years 1957 to 1987. And quite successfully, but in the end, only my experiential work seems to be what’s of interest in the present, and I imagine, would be in the future. Fortune and fame don’t always coincide!

Hey: We are graphic designers, who like illustration as a graphic medium of expression. It’s true that our style is basically quite clear, simple and geometric, reduced to the minimum expression, while maintaining the degree of iconicity that each project requires. But in the end, Hey is an attitude, not just design or illustration. Our work transmits this attitude, which we believe should always be positive.

Hey Studio, do the principles of minimalism or early modernism inform this attitude? Where does this desire to distil to a ‘minimum expression’ originate for you?

Hey: Graphic design has its foundations in modernism, which is not based on trends, but on realising ideas clearly and efficiently (directly). We believe it is the most honest way to design work. It is also the best way to understand design. The goal is to knowing how to find the essence.

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Hey: ArtFad 2013

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Hey: Agenda CCCB, 2012

Ed, had the theory of deconstructivism inspired this way of working for you, before your enrolment on the famously deconstructivist curriculum at Cranbrook Academy of Art?

Fella: I was interested in ‘theory’ in art and design during the 70s and early 80s, before I actually went to Cranbrook. It was part of the culture at the time; books and periodicals (even newspapers) sometimes carried discussions of theories unfolding from academia into the consciousness of the higher-end arts and architecture professions. It was in the air, and much of my experimental work at that time was loosely connected to this awareness. On the other hand, I had a very good education in a Detroit arts high school, during the mid 50s, in the ideas of the Bauhaus and the experimental formalism of early 20th century modern art – taking things apart and rearranging them in different (and sometimes contradictory) ways, always in search of ‘new’ styles. My two years at Cranbrook in 1985 to 87 allowed me full-time access to this ‘deconstructivist’ practice, as it came to be called. By now, doing commercial projects was no longer necessary for me, so I continued building a body of work using this approach and do so to this day. But if I were 45 years younger, I’d being doing something altogether different. I would be a 21st century designer and you would see me on trendlist.org!

Already, we have begun talking about trends, which is one of the main ‘symptoms’ of a design principle or theory. From both of your ‘principles’, there are derivative trends – new collections of minimalist posters are almost daily occurrences online, and the most superficial aspects of deconstructivism are also very popular approaches for young designers. What would you say an awareness of theory and principle – in a historical and practical sense – does to the integrity of a finished piece of work?

Fella: I don’t have much of a problem with trends, in fact I always rather liked them. I have certainly followed them, and been part of some of them. In a way, they give you a view into the larger wave of all the work that’s being produced in the time between the recent past and the present. You can be part of a ‘trend’, in needing to do something necessarily recognisable or, if you choose, by trying to find a way around one (ultimately that was my way). Within this kind of context, you get an overview into what’s happening and can do or redo or undo accordingly. I think this is what I’ve always done: understanding history and theory only helped in making it more self-conscious, which finally turned it into a so-called ‘signature style’.

Hey: It’s true that following trends is the easy route for designers to take – after all, they are ‘of the moment’ and respond to a superficial artistic taste. However, by their very nature, they often don’t stand the test of time and that can be a problem. A good design project starts with a briefing and it should deliver a concept, idea and function with the right form. If a project isn’t understood, or is just seen for its form, then mistakes will appear. A good project communicates graphically.

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Ed Fella

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Ed Fella

If style can mark a moment in design history, how do you feel your work ages?

Hey: Our work comes from the time we live in. It is formed by what is around us – experiences, needs and inspirations. The 70s and 80s are a clear influence for us, which we adapt to bring up-to-date. I hope that in 30 years’ time, it can just still be understood.

Ed, you have the advantage of an older practice, and are able to see the way your work has been seen and understood over time. Was it anything like what you thought it might be, or is it judged for unexpected qualities?

Fella: If it is recognised for something new, it may receive acknowledgement by the larger culture it functions in. It might also have an influence, become a fashion or start a ‘trend’. But over time, all of this reverses itself and the work eventually ends up in ‘history’, where the only sure thing left is that it once existed. Or, and this is what we may all hope for (but can’t control), it maintains its importance and continues to resonate for successive generations in an established history, sometimes called the ‘canon’. If you have made an ‘undeniable body of work’, it most likely will. It’s just that you don’t have a say in that possibility, the future will determine it. My conceit is that I suspect my work, and the work I have already done, gets better over time. It ages well, continuing to grow in complexity and nuance and expands into the interests of a future culture, ever more established and validated by the critics and historians. But I could also be laughed off as delusional and the work considered as just another version of crazy ‘outsider art’, and ultimately ignored and forgotten along with the vast percentage of everything else ever done. You could say I’ve been on both sides of the question and the answer isn’t in yet!

Do either of you think you could design in a void of precedent and history?

Fella: I suppose one could, and this already exists somewhat in so-called ‘outsider art’ or certain forms of ‘folk art’. Artists and designers have attempted it in a deliberate and self-conscious way, but it’s hard to say with what success, since it’s almost impossible to not connect one thing with another in some sort of relationship!

Hey: We think it’s impossible to design without knowing the past and what has been done before. It would be like trying to invent a new language from scratch and that would be incredibly difficult. It’s a conversation that we construct between all of us and that makes work richer.

Hey, what do you think contemporary visual communication would be like, if modernism hadn’t existed?

Hey: It would be like everyone driving Cadillacs, sitting in old armchairs and listening to the radio!

Ed, where might you have found an anchor for your work, without the theory?

Fella: Perhaps in a kind of blissful or willful ignorance, because anything that is made can be given a context, which in turn can be theorised. There is really no outside theory. Even ‘post-theory’ is an attempt to relegate it to the (un-) or sub-conscious in an attempt to free oneself from a self-awareness of it. But practice still has to come first. I’ve always said to my students, “Know history and theory, so you can forget it!” In my work, I have used ideas like ‘chance operations’ and ‘non-intentional procedures’ and ‘pure intuition’ more often than not… all of which, by the way, are ‘theories’, but for me, something I discover only after the fact.

Hey Studio: Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert

Hey Studio: Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert

Ed Fella

Ed Fella

Opposites React is a series of conversations between two different studios or practitioners. 

This instalment of Opposites React first appeared in The Principle Principle print issue.

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