The irreverent Yorklyn, Delaware-based type foundry House Industries established its basic modus operandi when co-founder and art director Andy Cruz was still in the 10th grade. A precocious artist, he had enrolled in a commercial art program at the local technical high school alongside friend and future partner Allen Mercer, despite having only a hazy idea of what commercial art even meant. As part of the program, students got to work half the day at a local studio, “which was cool,” Cruz says, “because it gave us a taste of the real world and what a small agency had to deal with while we were trying to pass algebra.”
The studio where he worked, Miller Mauro Group, also exposed him to the computing revolution that was turning the design industry on its head in the late '80s, even as he was also required to learn traditional commercial-illustration techniques in class. One of his jobs at Miller Mauro was to run jobs on floppy disks over to a local service bureau run by a guy named Rich Roat. Eventually Roat moved over to Miller Mauro to become a kind of jack-of-all-trades, which resulted in the pair working on many projects together. “The chemistry was there, where I'd come up with some crazy idea, and fortunately he'd buy into it, and we'd figure out a way to pull it off,” says Cruz. Which is more or less how House Industries is still run today.
On how he discovered design:
I liked to draw. Skateboarding and punk rock helped me connect the dots.
In 1993, Roat bought into Cruz's crazy idea that the two of them should quit their jobs to start their own business, so they set up shop in Roat's spare bedroom and called themselves Brand Design Co. They wanted to do wilder, more creative work that was inspired by the subcultures through which they'd discovered graphic design in the first place—skateboarding, heavy metal, video games, hot rods. This was impossible within the conservative, corporate climes of Wilmington, so they picked up the phone and started calling around for clients.
They sweet-talked Calumet Carton, a carton manufacturer in Chicago, into giving them a small job, a mailing of CD envelopes—which Cruz purposely designed to be “borderline ugly,” much to the consternation of his client. This was the year of Steven Heller's seminal essay “Cult of the Ugly” and the height of postmodernism in design. The tactic worked. People noticed the mailing and more jobs ensued, along with a first wave of press recognition. At the same time, the fledgling company—now a trio with the addition of Cruz's Miller Mauro buddy Allen Mercer—had begun to realize that client work could be kind of a chore. Was there a way for them to distill their aesthetic into a product line?
The answer, they decided, would come through the hand-lettered fonts they'd begun developing—“our gateway drug,” Cruz says. But they assumed the venture would probably flop though, and since good things had been said about Brand Design Co., they decided to come up with a new name so as not to sully the old one. Cruz was looking through a collection of old clip art and saw an image of a factory next to a house. “There it is: House Industries!” he exclaimed. In keeping with their fondness for appropriating pop-cultural ephemera, they used the clip art itself as their logo.
On being part of Design Journeys:
Honestly, it doesn't matter if you're black, brown, white, purple or blue. At the end of the day, good work should transcend race.
To market the venture, Roat traded QuarkXPress training to a clerk at the local Sir Speedy in exchange for free printing of a postcard that House sent out to all the addresses listed in the back of that year's Communication Arts annual. Unfortunately, they'd only created enough letters to spell out the font names themselves, so when the art director of Warner Bros. Records called to buy the fonts, they had to cite a disclaimer they'd placed at the bottom of the mailer which said “Allow four to six weeks for delivery,” then scramble to complete the fonts. “That was the shot in the arm,” Cruz said. “I thought, wait, there might be some interest here.”
Sleepless nights ensued, dominated by the mastering of Fontographer and adding new styles. “I'd be lying to you if I said that when we first started we knew anything about type,” Cruz says. “We were a bunch of kids, and by doing it, we learned the hard way.” They did learn, though, and over time, House was able to become increasingly selective about the client work it took on. In 1995, the company released Crackhouse, a gritty, punk-zine-inspired sans serif font created by newcomer Jeremy Dean that epitomized the grungey aesthetic popularized by designers like David Carson and Art Chantry. It became the cornerstone of House's General Collection, a line of similarly distressed fonts with arch names like Outhouse and Halfwayhouse, which helped put the company on the map.
Around this time, Cruz's obsession with the Southern California hot-rod culture epitomized by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, the car builder and illustrator famed for his grotesque Rat Fink caricatures, and was spending all his extra money on Rat Fink models, iron-ons, decals and other ephemera. “It hit me one day,” he says. “Why not have my hobby work for me?” In 1996, Cruz's revelation led to a licensed collaboration with Roth that yielded his Rat Fink font, a translation of Roth's hand-lettered type into the digital realm. While House had already been emulating its design inspirations with fonts like Crackhouse or Monster, a tribute to B-movie title sequences, it now began making homages to its heroes as a conscious strategy, following up Rat Fink with Coop, a tribute to rock-poster artist Chris Cooper, in 1998.
His advice to young designers:
Do work that will make you happy. Though happiness doesn't often pay as well, sometimes it's a little more important than cash. You can always go get a better-paying job that you'd hate.
As Cruz and crew aged, however, those heroes got more grown-up. Over the last decade, House has released fonts inspired by the work of typographer Ed Benguiat, textile designer Alexander Girard and architect Richard Neutra. “It comes back to our personal interests and hobbies,” Cruz says. “When my wife and I first found out we were pregnant and had to buy furniture, we thought, 'Let's not buy lame furniture.' That's how we were introduced to Neutra, Eames and modernism.”
The fonts have also increasingly become centerpieces of playful product spheres built around a given theme. For example, House created a nativity set based on a Girard illustration and a set of wooden blocks displaying the letters of the Neutraface Slab font. These accessories and prints are a natural outgrowth of the quirky, elaborate packaging House has always wrapped its font CDs in. (The company does also release its fonts naked, via digital download.) “The type is great,” says Cruz. “It's our core business. But it's a really nice distraction to take those letterforms and see how far we can push them.”
There will be another block set and several other associated projects to accompany the Eames collection, which Cruz says will be a large family that hearkens back to the wood-blocky slab-serif typefaces such as Clarendon. Released in May 2010 after a decade of development, it will likely be the last of House's collaborations. “Where do you go after the Eameses?” Cruz asks.
If the past is any indication, it's likely to be some new hobby or beloved pop-culture reference, and the result is sure to further cement House's reputation as a group of pranksters who take their type seriously. Cruz says not to count on future influences remaining so civilized, either. “As much as we like all that serious stuff, we also like to just go off and have fun. If that means drawing hair and tongues on type, great!”