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.