One afternoon in 2010, Andy Cruz got home, checked his voicemail and heard the sort of thing that most designers only dream of. It went like this:
“Hi. This is Jimmy Kimmel. Sorry for bothering you at home. I just wanted to talk to you about designing a logo for my show.”
For a moment, Cruz thought the call might be a prank. After all, some of his employees at House Industries, the small and decidedly noncorporate design studio he’d founded some 17 years before, got off on stuff like that. But, no. Kimmel’s voice actually belonged to Kimmel, who was soon emailing Cruz pieces of inspiration—photographs he’d taken himself of old hotel and restaurant signs. Though born in Brooklyn, Kimmel had spent his childhood in Las Vegas, a city whose neon casement letters rendered in looping, exuberant script had, along with his penchant for watching old movies on TV, forged a love of the roadside aesthetic.
Cruz felt an immediate kinship with Kimmel, because drawing from early influences—frequently ones that academia would refer to as low art—was central to how he and business partner Rich Roat had built House from a shoestring venture with no clients into one of the most highly influential design shops in the country.
There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of House Industries, but there’s pretty much zero chance you haven’t seen its work. While House has designed and sold everything from ceramics to furniture to its own branded clothing line, its renown (and most of its revenue) lay in creating typefaces.
Consumers generally don’t pay much attention to typefaces—which most people call fonts, though there are technical differences between the two—but the creators of brands certainly do. A style of lettering not only makes a company name pop, it sends a silent but potent message about a brand’s origins, attitude and audience. As the Type Director’s Club has put it, a font marks “the fine line between brand difference and indifference.”
And early on, brands began noticing House’s fonts. In 1993, Cruz and Roat set up their business in the spare bedroom of Roat’s apartment. Young and precocious, they sent out their first catalog before the fonts inside were fully finished. When Warner Brothers called (Cruz and Roat’s first reaction: “Shit”) Cruz scrambled to finish House’s General Collection, and the firm was on its way. MTV became another early customer, using House’s Rowhouse font for its on-air titles. Soon, Cruz and Roat noticed their fonts appearing across the commercial landscape—in Saab commercials, liner notes for Green Day, and on Wayne’s World, to name a few.
More recently, House’s fonts have been spotted in The New Yorker magazine, in J.J. Abrams films, on Adele’s albums and on merchandise for Japanese chains Muji and Uniqlo. House fonts are on Lucky Charms cereal, too, and restaurants like Taco Bell, McDonald’s and Shake Shack, and on highball glasses from Baccarat. They’re also, of course, on Jimmy Kimmel’s logo, which over 2 million TV viewers look at every weeknight. House’s work is on glorious display in a new book titled, House Industries: The Process is the Inspiration, due out May 30.
And starting this Saturday, House’s work will be on view in Dearborn, Mich. On May 27, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation will unveil “House Industries: A Type of Learning.” As the double entendre suggests, this is an exhibition devoted not just to fonts as such, but to the inspiration and experimental processes that led to their creation.
One man’s hobby is another man’s inspiration
Talking about inspiration can be tedious stuff. Creative types frequently can’t discuss their muses without getting lost in the obscure, the abstract and (worst of all) the self-important. Fortunately, none of that applies to House. Cruz’s inspiration didn’t come from an Ivy-League education, a devotion to classicism or a grand tour of museums of Europe. Instead, it was the ordinary fascinations of childhood that got him started and an inextinguishable curiosity in adulthood that’s sustained him and his firm ever since. As Cruz put it, “We’re just a bunch of blue-collar kids from Delaware following our interests and … figuring out ways to make those interests work for us.”
Cruz unapologetically refers to the things that inspire him and his team as “bad influences”—the decidedly low-art realm heaped with junk like hot rodding magazines, plastic Godzilla figures, metal lunch boxes, skateboards and restaurant Tiki mugs. Yet House’s work not only substantiates the overlooked cultural value of these objects, it also demonstrates how they’re parts of a creative continuum—a postwar American style that can be borrowed and reinterpreted for an array of versatile, contemporary and commercially viable uses.
For example, like many American Gen X kids, Cruz was a fan of hot rods in his preadolescent years, an interest that was supercharged by his own father having built a low rider from a 1932 Ford. During the 1950s and ’60s, one of hot rodding’s progenitors was Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a gifted artist and cultural iconoclast whose “krazy” jagged lettering and character Rat Fink (a seedy, bug-eyed rodent that sprang from Roth’s disdain for Mickey Mouse) came to embody the entire street rod movement. It was this gasoline-soaked aesthetic that led Cruz to create one of House’s earliest fonts, Rat Fink. (If you’ve ever seen any of 20th Century Fox’s Ice Age films, that’s the Rat Fink font in the title.)
Cruz, who helped curate the Ford exhibition, wanted to show the inspiration for each of House’s selected creations—“the process paired with influence,” as he put it—and he started with this one. “The first thing you’ll see is the ’32 Ford hot rod my dad built,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house where hot rodding was a very important subject.”
Back to the future
Another important subject for Cruz is midcentury modernism, a movement that interested him shortly before the birth of his second child, when he poured his share of his firm’s modest earnings into the purchase of a modern, glass-walled house built into a hillside in Yorklyn, Del. A cool house, Cruz decided, must be filled with “cool stuff” that’s period-appropriate, a mandate that led to a self-guided education in designers including Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Girard and Richard Neutra.
The minimal, sophisticated lines of Neutra, the architect best remembered for the boomerang chair and his flat-roofed houses with glass walls, led to the creation of House’s Neutraface font. With its spare, elegant lines, the font evokes the modernism of the postwar years while also giving off an effortless confidence that feels contemporary. This ability to have a foot planted in two different eras while making good design look effortless is a quality unique to House, according to chief curator Marc Greuther. “They never seem to teeter into retro nostalgia,” he said. “There’s a freshness and a newness, even when you can see the historical entirety, and that’s quite special.”
It may also be the reason why House’s Neutraface has found so many contemporary applications, among them HBO’s Girls series, the envelopes for the Academy Awards, the channeled neon letters over the doors of Shake Shack restaurants and albums for some British singer named Adele.
Around the same time he bought his house, Cruz also started collecting tiki mugs from old Polynesian restaurants. These kitschy eateries saw a surge in popularity in the 1950s and ’60s, finding a ready clientele among former GIs who’d been stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. The drink ware, Cruz said, “is one of those things you’re attracted to by the forms and the distorted stories of Polynesia and how that’s interpreted by these restaurants.”
But while some people might look at a tiki mug as a passé piece of middlebrow Americana, Cruz saw something else: “They became these little vessels that embodied the branding of the establishment,” he said. “They’re sculpted off the restaurant’s logo, and it became this artifact.” Cruz’s collection became something else, too: The Tiki Type font that can “add an exotic look to any mainlander’s layout,” to quote from the House catalog. Tiki Type wouldn’t seem to lend itself to very many mainstream applications. But tens of millions of CBS viewers actually saw it for 13 straight years. Tiki Type was the font used in the series Survivor.
New font on the block
Visitors to the Ford exhibit will encounter a pile of Gulliver-sized wooden blocks, along with a circular platform of kid-sized ones. Aside from their thematic reference to printing itself, wooden blocks have been a major vehicle for House’s work.
Around the same time Cruz was following another rabbit hole into the work of Alexander Girard (best known as the director of design for the textile division of Herman Miller), he found himself watching children stack wooden blocks at the Montessori school that his kids attended. It was then that Cruz decided to make his own wooden blocks, imprinting them with the Girard font he’d been working on. (Wooden forms appear again and again in House’s work, most notably in a block puzzle shaped like an Eames House in a store window House created for Hermès using an equine-inspired font band-sawed from foot-thick slabs of reclaimed cedar.)
The aesthetic link between Alexander Girard and Herman Miller would prove crucial years later, when Cruz found himself meeting with executives from Herman Miller Japan, who were looking for ideas for their Tokyo showroom. It was then that Cruz proposed using the modernist brand’s classic furniture shipping box as a model for another set of wooden blocks. “I had this silly idea,” Cruz said, “to make it look like … an old Miller packing box.”
Except the idea wasn’t silly—Herman Miller used it for an event, and House commissioned legendary wood block-maker Uncle Goose to create sets for the company. The promotional stunt turned out to be a fateful move for House, because it’s how a set of the blocks fell into the hands of Greuther, who already enjoyed a close relationship with the Herman Miller company.
“I thought [the blocks] were intriguing objects,” Greuther said. “I got them in hand and thought, ‘I need to know more about [this.]’”
“He called, and we hit it off,” Cruz said. “And the next thing I know … we started formulating the early idea on doing the show.”
The house that Henry built
A visit to the Henry Ford Museum is the history lover’s idea of a dream vacation. Devoted to preserving and showcasing “America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness and innovation,” the museum’s displays include a McDonald’s neon Golden Arch from 1960, an early steam engine designed by James Watt and a 1939 Douglas DC-3, among thousands of other items.
Of course, plenty of museums have cool stuff on the floor. What distinguishes the Ford is that it doesn’t just display seminal American innovations, it “reveal[s] the underpinnings and influences behind them,” Greuther explained. And in House’s case, the commercial applications of House’s fonts and the everyday American commercial objects that inspired them were in pleasing sync with the Ford’s vision—especially since some of America’s most fabled innovators (the Wright Brothers, even Henry Ford himself) drew their inspiration from the everyday. The Wrights repaired bicycles, for example, and Henry Ford took apart and reassembled a pocket watch at age 13.
“One thing that’s an important part of our mission is helping people realize their own potential,” which often derives, Greuther said, from “the ordinary and the everyday, the practical things, the interest anybody has. House is big on that.”
“Every day, we see things hidden in plain sight that can inspire us,” the curator added. “The world’s full of interesting provocations.”
Like, say, big and gaudy and oversized neon signs dotting the Las Vegas strip. Signs like that inspired Jimmy Kimmel to send ideas to Andy Cruz, who was inspired to create a TV show logo that melds the seedy exuberance of Vegas with the sophistication of Hollywood, folding a lost and seemingly irrelevant past into a decidedly modern, commercial vernacular. In House’s realm, nothing gets old, nothing’s too common to be overlooked, and every interest is worth exploring.
Or, as Cruz puts it, “Learn from what you like, and apply that to what you do.”