Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Fans First

August 7, 2017 Think THF

Co-founder Andy Cruz shares how an enthusiast’s disposition and a willingness to experiment helped build his font factory, House Industries

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Even if you’ve never heard of House Industries, it’s safe to say you’ve seen its fonts and graphic design work. They’re everywhere, from drive-thru menus to record sleeves to children’s toy blocks to the signage associated with the modern-day burger joint Shake Shack.

House’s output is a connective tissue that runs between such cultural touchstones as hot-rod hero Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, iconic French fashion house and saddlery Hermès, midcentury designers Alexander Girard and Charles and Ray Eames, and renowned pottery and tile manufacturer Heath Ceramics.

House Industries was founded in Delaware in 1993 by graphic designers Andy Cruz and Rich Roat, when, in response to the overwhelmingly corporate clientele in Wilmington, the pair decided to develop their custom lettering into fonts they could sell as products. This additional income acted as a buffer, affording Cruz and Roat a certain measure of freedom when selecting clients and collaborations. Taking visual cues from their various influences and interests — hot rods, skateboarding, punk rock, cycling and modern design, among others — House Industries developed a reputation for enthusiastic experimentation and an idiosyncratic approach to type that has only grown over the years.

Soon much of their work and the stories behind it will be published in the book The Process Is the Inspiration and presented to the public in an exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. While preparing for the exhibition, Cruz took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with The Henry Ford Magazine about the underlying philosophy behind House Industries and its approach to collaboration.

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DID YOU KNOW? House Industries delivers its space-age 3009 font set in a die-cut spaceship reminiscent of a ’50s sci-fi film.

THF Magazine:
Can you talk about the general philosophy behind House Industries?

Cruz: We built House on the simple idea of incorporating personal interests into our work.

The trick was figuring out how to make our hobbies work hard for us, instead of working hard to support our hobbies. We tried to create a world at House where our curiosities and interests help fuel our business and personal lives and created a sense of purpose. So that’s one idealistic pillar of House Industries. Reality eventually kicked in, and we had to get down to figuring out how to apply those interests — that acquired knowledge — to the things that we were making. It started out as fonts, and then our design attention deficit disorder kicked in. Soon we were making clothing and then that became ceramics and then that became bicycles. So it’s always moving. It’s slightly unpredictable. But the cornerstone of House is following our interests and self-led learning.

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A DEEP DESIGN DIVE: House Industries spent four years researching the work of designer Alexander Girard, traveling to Germany, Michigan and New Mexico in the process. The result was the Girard collection of fonts and other items capturing the designer’s folk art sensibilities, plus a book documenting the project. House Industries also did its homework when iconic luxury brand Hermès commissioned the studio to “dress” its flagship Tokyo store with its signature alphabetical flair.

THF Magazine:
The spirit of collaboration is present and a constant throughout House Industries’ body of work. How do you approach collaboration?

Cruz: A lot of it is mutual appreciation, if you will. I think of the Heath stuff, where we just went out there for a factory tour with no credentials — just sort of rolled in as tourists. I put up a shot of the men’s bathroom [on our blog], where they had some really cool tiles, and [Catherine Bailey, co-owner of Heath Ceramics] reaches out and says, “I wish I’d known you were here. I’ve been following you guys for a long time. Let’s try and figure something out.”

Sure enough, we figured something out. Again, that wasn’t a calculated business maneuver. It was just one of those things where, “Hey, I’m digging what you guys are doing; you dig what we do; let’s put the chocolate in the peanut butter and hope other people like how it tastes.”

The best work always comes out when that relationship is there. When they trust us and we trust them, we end up with something that everyone is excited to be a part of.

THF Magazine:
It’s interesting the way you can thread the needle so successfully over and over again — creating something that’s identifiably a House Industries’ creation but also amplifies the message of a world-renowned brand like Hermès, for example. 

Cruz: There’s definitely a level of respect there that we try to be sensitive to. I think the Hermès project might be a good example because we wanted to be reverent to the brand, but at the same time, we wanted to bring something to the party that was a little more House Industries. We basically drew their name in the shape of a horse, then cut each letter out of solid chunks of cedar. If you tell someone that, you could definitely get some eye rolls. But that was all part of trying to understand the company’s equestrian history, their design legacy, and bake some of those elements into the project, and usually we can come out the other side looking and sounding like we know what we’re doing. [laughs]

THF Magazine:
You’ve taken on other projects during which you’re actively collaborating with brands connected to a family name and, in some cases — such as Charles and Ray Eames or Alexander Girard — with the history of design itself. How do you approach that?

Cruz: That stuff does come from being fans first, and I always try to remind our collaborators — be it an Eames or the Girards, even a Jimmy Kimmel — that we are stoked that they thought enough about us to let us work with their names. So we’re always conscious of that relationship. And as fans, you hate to see when your favorite brand does something, and it’s like, “Oh, man. That’s lame. Why’d they do that?” So that fan mentality helps us keep things honest at times. When we’re dealing with people’s family names and histories you admire, you don’t want to botch things up.

Accidental by Design
Throughout the conversation with The Henry Ford Magazine, Cruz is self-effacing and nonchalant, almost as if the success of House Industries has been a happy accident or its collaborations with indelible brands and legacies just sort of happened. But House’s new book, The Process Is the Inspiration, belies some of that.

With the Eames project, for example, it took House Industries a decade to bring that project to fruition. At which point, even after a lifetime of appreciation and a painstaking scouring of the Eames archive at the Library of Congress, House’s sketches of “whimsical display fonts” left Charles Eames’ grandson Eames Demetrios unimpressed. He asked for something more forward-thinking that would contribute to the already established Eames legacy. So Cruz and company attacked the project from another angle, enlisted another collaborator in Erik van Blokland and created a purposeful typographical system of “workhorse” fonts rooted in the utilitarian spirit and playful joy of Charles and Ray’s work. They even applied it to toys.

Having been won over, Demetrios said in retrospect: “Design is a willingness to surrender to a journey ... Every once in a while you encounter a company like House Industries who is willing to go on that journey and grow our brand as well as theirs.”

Despite Cruz’s charming self-deprecation, it’s clear that, far from being accidental, the success of House Industries and its collaborations comes down to the obsessive, enthusiastic hard work and due diligence of wonderfully obsessive enthusiasts.

By Bernie Brooks for The Henry Ford Magazine, with photos by Carlos Alejandro.

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