FEATURES : DESIGN

House Rules

Design

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.”-break-

Digging deeper, House began a type collection with Ed Benguiat after featuring him in an article for House magazine. Benguiat is a legendary typographer and had been an influential force at Photo-Lettering Inc. (PLINC). During the project with Benguiat, they also formed a relationship with PLINC founder, Ed Rondthaler. Before passing away at 104 years old, he was looking for a new home for the 9000 piece archive, ensuring that the motherlode of type history would reach another generation.

Beginning in the 1930’s, PLINC had an impressive roster of type designers including Peter Max, Milton Glaser, and Bradbury Thompson, who built a boldly expressive portfolio. “They were ninjas of their time with the lens. They had the who’s who of lettering artists. Josef Albers, Pete Dom… Benguiat was the director that got all his friends to come in. What they did is define pop culture typographically. It ended up on album covers, on product and advertising. It was fueled through agencies and designers.”

House had a long standing respect for PLINC’s body of work, and began to see themselves carrying the torch for Benguiat and Rondthaler. “Benguiat told us the story of visiting Timothy Leary’s house. He wanted to draw type that mimicked the psychedelic era and take inspiration from Art Nouveau. Things like that trip us out to this day.” House purchased the entire archive, bringing it to Delaware. They began a labor of love, recreating photographic films of alphabets as digital type. Through their recent launch of photolettering.com, House is ensuring this incredible reservoir will reach the hands of today’s designers.

As Cruz and House saw their presence grow by partnering with design heroes, they also had a hunger to flex their own aesthetic and take a break from type team-ups. “We did run into spots where we felt like we were losing our identity, I’m not going to lie to you. Everyone knows us as these great collaborators and I started to feel like a Motown studio band. We had so much talent inside the House studio that needed to get out from behind the collaborations.” Since the beginning type had been just one facet of their DIY experimentation. “Oh shit, let’s make shirts because that’s easier than fonts. We’d do props for catalogs… let’s make a dollhouse because this font looks good when you type out ‘dollhouse’, and then let’s make wallpaper with the type. Let’s try our hand at making physical product.” Along the way House had spawned their own line of streetwear. After joining forces with London scenester and fashion buyer, Barnzley, they had a full line available in Japan and from the House 33 shop in the UK. They had also created a limited production of the Neutra Boomerang chair, built from the architect’s original plans.

These endeavors kept the DIY gene alive, and translated into House’s latest passion for producing objects. The Cruz household has become a canvas for experimentation, seeing how their objects interact with home life and interior design. “If you had told me 10 years ago we would be doing tea towels and folding screens I’d say ’that’s lame’. You can see how it evolves and grows, but the core belief is still there and lets us work on the things that get us excited.” They released a limited edition of wooden Koi with colorful typographic patterning from their own archives, that were inspired by the pond in Andy’s yard. Fatherhood has also inspired new products. “Making blocks for kids, who wouldn’t like doing that? I like how you can give a kid a set of blocks and they have no sense of nostalgia— but when you see them responding to it, that’s real. There’s no pretense to that at all… We’ve got the alphabets and letters and we should start creating more teaching tools rather than tools for advertising.”

Another recent team-up has brought their aesthetic to the home exterior, creating a series of “House Numbers” available in a range of styles and crafted by Heath Ceramics in California. For the launch, they transformed Heath’s Los Angeles store into a typographic wonderland, attracting design luminaries and celebrity fans. Creating interiors at that scale is next on the House agenda, with top secret projects in the works. “That’s where we’d like to push the design work. Hotrodding all those things, like figuring out how a cam works and the lobe of a cam shaft. We’re doing woodworking, screen printing, lettering, mechanics—it all merges. All those disciplines will make it real.”

The guys and gals of House Industries have proven their tenacity continuously since Andy Cruz and Rich Roat set up shop back in 1993. The foundation is still rock solid after 20 years, while building an incredible body of work brick by brick. They’ve stayed true to the lessons learned back in the days of cutting grass for skateboards—and kept their hands dirty, their minds curious, and their wits quick.