Ogling the archives at the House Industries studio in pastoral Delaware can only be likened to digging through the crates of a great record collector. All sorts of gems are strewn out across tables and desks as Andy Cruz recalls anecdotes about each one. He pauses on an early inked sketch of a House 33 logo for their UK clothing line and reminisces over their critiques. “How full do we make the stomach sack and and how far should it hang off the body of the character? What’s the best angle for the plucked chicken wing? The cavity with dripping insect eggs…are they better tucked back in the shadow, and should the Band-Aid holding them in have a few more perfs?” It’s made up entirely of entangled guts and bristly hairs, a masterpiece of grotesque typography of a different breed– more Rat Fink than Akzidenz.
This instinct to obsess, collect, and perfect runs deep in the House family tree. “I’ve got to blame a lot of it on my Dad, because he’s been a car guy since he was in high school. He restored Corvettes for years and then moved onto freehand pinstriping. When he wasn’t working on real cars, he collected models. There was also a strong musical influence. He played in a band and eventually taught me how to bang on the drums. When his band split up he started to DJ in the late 70s and would take me record shopping.”
Nuggets of family history like this make it easy to see why a hotrodding mentality stuck with Andy from an early age, and laid the foundation for House Industries. “Most of the guys at the studio come from blue collar homes and the work ethic comes through. If you want something done, you have to DIY it.” Printing posters for a punk band, cutting grass to buy a new skateboard deck, and messing around with paints in his Dad’s shop were formative experiences that translated into House’s current appetite for risk and reward. “If we want to make a chair, it has nothing to do with type, but if we’re passionate about it we’ll figure out a way.” Andy and the House crew found themselves viscerally drawn to the design vernacular of their youths. “When you look at the Kiss logo or a Hot Wheels package, there was something there that sucked us in on some emotional level, that is still what we try and capture or recreate today when we do a logo or piece of type. How can we try and channel the same emotions we got out of this stuff as kids?”
From their onset in 1994, House Industries built a reputation for highly stylized fonts that cut through the uptight and mundane. Collections like Bad Neighborhood, Rat Fink, Sign Painter, and Tiki Type translated Americana into alphabets, and they garnered a cult following by trusting their guts. Their catalogs and packaging were endowed with novelty that made buying type feel like getting a shiny new toy. Andy recalls seeing their early work pop up in places like Wayne’s World, Green Day liner notes, and Saab commercials—like a band hearing their song on the radio for the first time. “I don’t think it really crystalized until we had a couple products out there, I hate to say that it was almost an intuitive process. That was our go-to, ‘What do we like?’ Whether it was a musical reference, flipping through LP’s, Tiki mugs, or sticker collections—that was our Tumblr site. Now it’s tough to not see [our typefaces] because they’ve saturated pop culture in a weird way. Fortunately the fonts continue to pop up out there and we still get a few butterflies in our stomachs.”
Mining Americana for inspiration evolved into cultivating relationships with their design heroes, and House found a kinship with hotrod icon Big Daddy Ed Roth. “Fortunately Ed Roth was still alive with Rat Fink and a friend-of-a-friend hooked us up. To have the opportunity to work with one of our heroes was amazing. The stuff he was doing in the 60’s was incredible.” Having no formal training or engineering background, Roth built far-fetched custom cars, and his legend only grew with the creation of the Rat Fink character. “This was before the Beatles hit, kids were into cars and he was the guy that fueled the imagination, and got kids to start drawing or picking up a wrench and got them to get their hands dirty.” He was an original DIYer, something that clearly resonated with House. Feeling the momentum with the Roth type collection, they began to pursue more collaborations with the design estates of Richard Neutra, Alexander Girard, and The Eames. “Some of those formal design influences came into play and we’ll jump from Ed Roth to Neutra… Let’s take what we learned from Neutra and share it, tell the story and history then create a tool that other designers can use that will transcend the original source.”