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Design Spotlight: Andrea Fella

The art director of Nylon talks about her hands-on style, her famous father and shooting her own spreads

By Greg Lindsay - February 28, 2005

Andrea Fella can legitimately say that design runs in her blood. It's just that she won't unless cornered. Fella, 35, is the art director of Nylon, the messy chic fashion magazine for girls who worship Marc Jacobs and spend their rent checks at Bumble & Bumble achieving the perfect bedhead look. Fella took over the magazine's day-to-day design duties a little more than a year ago at the behest of Patrick Mitchell, the former Fast Company designer-turned-consultant hired to conduct a redesign. At the time, Fella was considering ditching the field completely. In her brief career, she'd already bounced from startup design shops to jobs at I.D. and The New York Times Magazine. But she found she couldn't walk away—from the Nylon job or from design. Part of that may have to do with her father, Ed Fella, a commercial artist and typographer who worked in obscurity for 30 years before he was hailed a readymade genius by the avant design crowd. Andrea Fella isn't just an art director struggling to produce a magazine every month—in her world, she's also stuck being celebrity offspring.

Mediabistro: So, how are you enjoying Nylon? Do you find the relative lack of overhead invigorating, or is designing a fashion magazine on a miniscule budget one long exercise in troubleshooting?

Fella: I love it. I love it because you have to work with certain obstructions in any job, and for me, financial ones always push creativity. That said, there are limitations—"This photographer just won't do it for this price. Damn." But what happens then, is you have the room to do it yourself, which is pretty amazing. I shoot [photography] for the magazine under both my name and a pen name. The photo director shoots stuff. [Editor/owner] Marvin [Scott Jarrett] has always shot for the magazine. I love that, because half my interests are in photography and it's so satisfying to be that involved and not just the middle man. Instead of "I'm going to commission this, and then lay it out here" you just commission yourself and say, "How would I do this?" You get that feeling all the time as a designer, especially when you are working in a situation like The New York Times Magazine, where everything you do has to go to a big person. You have to have a certain name in terms of an illustrator or photographer. It's just frustrating, because you know what you want, and sometimes you can do it yourself.

Mediabistro: That sounds like the complete opposite of how you felt about design when you offered this job. You had started a two-person studio with Chris Dixon, who joined New York magazine after you left for Nylon, but you weren't really working on much.

Fella: I think I took about eight months off, and just focused on other things. And also realized at that point I had to decide whether I was going to stay in magazine design. Because it felt like I ended up there, but I thought I'd be in interactive design, or I thought I'd actually be a writer, and I just kept going with it instead and I wasn't sure whether that was my calling.

Mediabistro: And it was at that point that Patrick Mitchell found you?

Fella: Yeah, he did.

Mediabistro: And you needed him to bring you back?

Fella: Well yeah, I kind of did, in a weird way. The time off kind of did it for me. I missed it. And I realized I really liked it. I really did like design. But I wasn't sure about magazines, though. I really wasn't. But Patrick helped me out. It was funny; he called me about his magazine opportunity, and I was like, "Oh, that sounds good." Because we had spoken once or twice when I was at the Times about Fast Company, but I wasn't moving to Boston. So, we met up and I was like, "Oh, I hope it's anything but fashion, I don't want to do that." And sure enough, it's Nylon.

I had interviewed for an idea of Nylon before it became reality. In that case, it was fashion, but also "real life." What do real people wear? Real girls and no models. And it was under a different editor. It was Marvin's idea, but other people were involved. And I was very excited about it. It was the first thing I was excited about while I was at The New York Times Magazine, and I had interviewed for a couple of other things, but this one sounded good. Then it all changed and it became what it became. I think it was great in the beginning, and then it just kind of got messy—I think it wasn't sure of what it was doing, maybe. But when Patrick called me, I just thought "I don't want to do this." But then I had dinner with Patrick and I just realized I really wanted to work with him. And Marvin is smart, he is open-minded, he is rare. He is definitely rare in the magazine world. And I realized I would definitely redesign it, and I would agree to do three issues for Patrick and then move on.

Mediabistro: But you didn't

Fella: But I loved it.

You know, we went through a sort of second redesign once we'd done the first. Once I sort of worked with the people there, I figured it out that we had gone in a direction that was a little too uptight, a little too perfect. And Marvin was like, "Fuck it up a little. I just needed something looser, organic."

Mediabistro: Speaking of organic, how have you grown into your role at Nylon? You're obviously not a typical art director if you're shooting spreads yourself. How does the process work there?

Fella: We give each other space to create, and people overlap roles all the time. And I love that. It happens, and I don't worry too much about how it happens—whether I'm involved in everything. I think the people are great. The photo director and the fashion director are wonderful. Sometimes they can create something, and it'll just be done. Other times, we discuss it and I want to be more involved, and they just let me be interested in what I'm interested in. Some things you want to be involved in, but then, when you are designing them, it's also good to step back. It's good to be handed something where you don't know every step involved.

That's how The New York Times Magazine would work. You would just be handed stuff because there were so many people involved—photo editors and directors—that you barely had a say, if you had any say. And then you would have a fresh take on the material. You are not concerned. I get very concerned with all of the details and pleasing everyone, and sometimes that goes too far—"Oh, well, she really wanted this person to look this way, or this really has to be..." You've got all of that in your head, and it can be hard then, to just make it look the best it can, and to tell the story in the way that the audience is going to see it and not just the way it looks in your own head.

Mediabisto: Well, what is the role of personal style, then? Do you try to avoid having one? Is that how you were able to go from the Times to Nylon?

Fella: I think you just figure it out. I don't have a strong personal philosophy, per se. There are certain personal constraints designers have, and therefore it makes them have a very personal style, whereas I know what I like. I know how I see balance, how I see form. I know how I want to respond to both the narrative of the story and the imagery of the photos that I'm up against. It kind of comes out of the material itself, and in doing so I guess you just form a personal style. It's hard for me to see. People on the outside seem able to see it, but it's not what I'm trying to do. I think it's a weird combination of my entire design history. It just comes through. There is an openness, almost a naiveté, about things, and the different schools of thought I've experienced—whether it was the early '90s in Los Angeles, or The New York Times Magazine—all sort of come together in what comes out.

Mediabistro: And how much of it is familial? Considering you consciously decided in college not to become a designer, yet did so anyway, then nearly left the field, but came back, how did growing up with Ed Fella shape you as a designer? And do you think that designers are perhaps born and not made, i.e. do you feel you have an innate visual sense, or learned design at a very early age by simply being near your father while he worked?

Fella: Yeah, I think that's something you can't avoid. Looking back, even though I didn't know what he was doing (I was playing in the next room) he was around me for most of my growing up because he was a single father, and therefore we were just with him during work, play, whatever. It was much more intense than, say, somebody who goes off to work and then comes home.

But it's much more about the way he sees the world. I mean, that's the influence. How to look at things, how to be open-minded, how to see that the vernacular is beautiful. It was how to just relate to design more than anything did, or what he was doing, because I was not conscious of it at all growing up. Nor was he. He went back to college when he was 40, and I was in high school. It just sort of ended when I graduated from high school. He left to go teach at CalArts, and I had to decide whether to go to college, whether to work in a gas station, whatever.

He didn't have any notoriety until I was at least three years into college—when the first article on him came out—and I was kind of stunned. I knew he'd been working toward this his whole life, but finally he got noticed, he was influencing things.

But I sort of turned away from that, obviously. I was like, "That's intimidating. I'm going to think about something else, whether it be two-dimensional design, or interactive, or whatever..."

As for born versus made, I don't know. But I can say to you that my mother was an artist and a graphic designer, and the same with my dad. So, yeah. It's in my blood for sure, but there was absolutely no formal design training going on at all growing up. I think there are certain qualities you need as a designer, and if you don't have those qualities it's just really difficult. If you are not detail-oriented and you just don't look at certain things it's hard, but maybe it means, "Ok, well, maybe this person is creative in a way that means they can be a creative director some day, and that would suit them because they like the ideas and they like the over all big picture." But when it comes right down to it, they just aren't paying attention.

I am detail-oriented and always have been, and I love that. I want to be hands-on, and that's all I think I do know. I do not want to be in meetings all day telling other people what I think they should do. That will just never suit me, or at least I don't think it will. You never know about the future, but at this point with Nylon, I'm hands-on everything, and that's meaningful, and I spend as much time color-correcting at pre-press as I do designing the story. And that's really important to me.

Mediabistro: Considering how you've bounced around and experienced a crisis of faith, how important is it to you to hang out with other designers? For example, I know you through a friend who was the art director at a magazine I worked at, and you're friends with Emily Crawford at Travel + Leisure, who you know through Patrick Mitchell, and so on. Do you think it's important for designers to hang out with other designers to vet ideas and learn from each other through osmosis? I mean, all magazine editors seem to do is hang out with other magazine editors.

Fella: I highly recommend getting out of that world entirely if that's all you have. I definitely when through a period of several years when I was much more involved in the design community, and then I dropped out. When Chris [Dixon] and I were working together in our own studio, we had all kinds of people coming through, designers and illustrators, but there was a period when I stepped out of that and it felt really good to meet people who were not at all in design, who didn't know what the hell I was doing.

They see Nylon and they don't judge it. But at the same time I just met up with [famed designer and typographer] Barry Deck. He's my friend, and I asked him to give me his opinion of Nylon and critique it. And it was fascinating because, "Wow! That's what he's seeing when he looks at this." And he is not the audience, so that's good too, because you are designing for both your actual audience and your design peers.

But I think you can get too caught up in just your design peers—"What are they doing? What am I doing, and should I be doing this?" And I think that can really hinder you in feeling good about what you're doing communicating to an audience outside of that.

At this point I feel free of that, and as I said, during that period when I decided, "Yes, I do love design, I do want to do it," I also let go of the idea that I was going to make history like my father. I never wanted to, but I had that weight over me, as I'm sure as a lot of children of famous or successful people do. And you know, it's my path and I have to do this. And my design is very different, it's much more about collaboration and the people I work with and what comes out of that, rather than my mark on history, or my mark in any of that.

Greg Lindsay a freelance writer in Brooklyn, has covered media for Inside.com and Women's Wear Daily



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