When I mentioned to several friends about meeting the House Industries gang, all immediately knew who they were. “Great grip,” said one, “bring me some.” “The arrogant asses blackballed by AIGA, right?” asked another.
Well, yes and no. House does offer buyers a lot of stuff: Their Swag Bag makes Jerry French look stingy by comparison. And they did infamously piss-off some AIGA high muck-a-mucks at the 1999 Las Vegas conference by cranking up the volume on the professional-grade concert system the AIGA had graciously provided for their band act. Aside from Chee Pearlman and Peter Saville (the soft-spoken British designer who had the misfortune of hosting a talk in the room next door), everyone else loved it.
What struck me as the most interesting aspect of House Industries was the fact that heretofore they had never been the subjects of a full feature article in the national design press. Everyone knows of them—but few people really know much about them.
After five years in a seedy crack-strewn transient district in downtown Wilmington, the House crowd decided a more bucolic setting was more conducive to the new demands of families, work and employee safety. House is now located in non-descript but pleasant Yorklyn, Delaware, a town outside of Wilmington. Once a farming community now more exurban, the town is in the middle of Delaware’s lovely Brandywine Valley, home of the celebrated Winterthur Museum and other breathtaking (DuPont paid for) estates.
Rich Roat, Andy Cruz and Adam Cruz grew up in the area, under more humble circumstances. Their studio is an austere three-story white clapboard frame Victorian, behind the wan Yorklyn post office and across from a barely functioning paper mill. It has a strange, bleak, gothic, Mid-Atlantic appeal. The House house is small, but it suits them. Most of the creative team (Roat, Cruz, Ken Barber, Ben Kiel, Bondé Prang and Chris Gardner) sits together on the first floor, while painter Adam Cruz toils in relative isolation under the attic eaves.
Rich Roat and Andy Cruz, the co-founders, immediately strike one as unpretentious, intelligent and welcoming. The “attitude” that I had been told about was not in evidence. In fact, throughout the entire visit they were always humble about their work, while understandably proud of the fact that they did not depend on outside clients to sustain them. Roat also quickly insists that theirs was not a story of great financial success, “If you came for that, you’d better get back to the airport. My first ‘big’ job at United Way Wilmington in 1984 paid $24,000 a year with benefits,” he says. “Those were my high-earning years.”
Roat was joking, of course. He, Cruz and Ken Barber, the three principal leaders of House, are always joking. Taking things seriously is not House style. They are very quick and dry-witted. Little escapes their observation or commentary; they have no sacred cows and employ no one with thin skin. If you’re a beloved Philadelphia Eagles fan whose team dropped a tough one at home the day before, fair game. If you are shy, look out. They are equal opportunity quipsters, but when it comes to work, they are serious. They are on the constant lookout for the forgotten font and the long-dead style. The level of detail they bring to their font families through research and story writing can be astonishing (e.g., Rat Fink! and Tiki Type).
Roat, House’s chief writer, began his career as a writer and paste-up artist for his college newspaper at University of Delaware, where he was a journalism major. He used this experience to convince the United Way of Delaware to let him be their print production supervisor. After they supplied him with a new Mac, he taught himself how to use it. He leveraged that job into a manager’s position at a nearby prepress shop in a strip mall. Unlike himself, Roat’s battery-operated automobile is silent while in motion. He wears thick glasses (as seen in many illustrated likenesses) and has no musical ability outside of a sonorous voice frequently deployed as the voiceover in the House Band stage act and its recordings.
Andy Cruz is an enormously talented art director who took his first job as a designer straight out of high school. He met Roat while running film to the prepress shop not far from his first employer, Miller Mauro. Soon enough, Mauro hired Roat and thus began the duo’s working relationship. In 1993 the two opened Brand Design Company, House’s predecessor. At the time, Cruz wasn’t old enough to rent a car to drive from the Chicago airport to their first client, a carton manufacturer in South Holland, Illinois. Didn’t matter, he didn’t have enough money to rent one either. Andy took the bus. Today he plays drums in the House Band and is its most versatile artist. Of Andy, Roat says, “He is House Industries. He is the gestalt of House and he forces everyone here to rise to his level of perfection. Without him, it would be a completely different animal.”
Adam Cruz was once known as Andy’s kid brother. Now he is the House lead painter and lead guitarist. Along with Chris Gardner, the company’s expert cartoonist, caricaturist and harassed Eagles fan, Adam is responsible for the House portraits seen on so much of their packaging and catalogs. His renderings help define the civilizations House creates to give context to their font families, such as ticky-tacky Polynesia Tiki or the bizarre Simian Fonts, loosely based on the 1968 film classic, Planet of the Apes. He is looking for gallery representation so he can quit this nonsense as soon as possible. “D.I.Y.-it, that’s what I tell people,” says Roat. “Do it yourself. Many wait for opportunity to come down. We did that and hated it. We create our own opportunities—even if we lose money.”
Roat explains that the group’s independence comes from its determination to create products for markets rather than to seek clients with contracts. With a mailing list of more than 80,000 designers, art directors and font geeks, House is adept at this, too. Known for its irreverence, House actually sells reverence for the hand-drawn, handmade work of tradesmen, cartoonists, craftsmen and artists too often forgotten.
For example, Rat Fink! is homage to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—a particular affection of Andy Cruz. The Monster Fonts are homage to Lon Chaney. Tiki Type is homage to Polynesian Pop. Las Vegas fonts are homage to the splendid and cheesy old Las Vegas. Beneath the fonts, House creates imaginary worlds complete with characters, cars, hairstyles, cocktail napkins, fast-food kiddy meals, key chains, babes, whatever. The detailed landscapes draw their audience in and help them see beyond the two-dimensional font. Just don’t call them retro.
Ken Barber, House’s director of typography, has a wit and repartee that would make a drag queen envious, and he can slice through baloney quicker than a deli knife. His baby face belies a man with an incisive world view. A talented writer, designer and bass player, of all the House characters, he has its most wicked and unstoppable sense of humor. It infects House. “Ken’s eclectic personality is balanced by a level head,” says Andy. “He does not allow people to get too full of themselves or too down on themselves. He keeps things here in perspective.”
“The fonts themselves are kind of incidental,” says Barber. “We amuse ourselves by creating these little worlds in which the fonts exist—and that becomes the packaging and story that sells the font. The fonts are fun. The stories are even better.”
No better example exists than the ruse House cooked up about one René Albert Chalet. In their self-published ten-year anniversary volume, House explains:
During the late ’90s the “dumb modernism” thing really took off, and the entrepreneurs in us were trying to figure out how to get a taste of the soulless Swiss redux. Originally, we planned on making a stylistic rendition of Helvetica and releasing it as Swiss Haus, or something to that effect. Finally Andy agreed to let Ken work up a fictional story about a forgotten designer who distilled the minimalist style years before Max Miedinger created his classic typeface. We thought that the name alone (Chalet = Swiss house) would let everyone in on the joke. But, surprisingly, no one immediately caught on. It didn’t hurt that we plastered the Chalet catalog with glowing endorsements of René Chalet’s work by graphic design industry heavyweights like Michael Beirut, Erik Spiekermann and Charles Anderson. Those guys kicked better BS than we did.
Their tenth anniversary book has been through two printings—13,000 in total. House has given away 150 and has about 300 left: the rest have sold. The compendium is a casebook on how House finds and resurrects the forgotten American design idea. It is also very funny. Great late-night reading, its best segments allude to pain-in-the-ass former clients (such as sausage-fingered, belligerent jerks like Big Ed, a pushy sales director at Custom Papers Group) or thieves (such as a kid from a British agency who used a House illustration of a customized Cooper MINI after his agency killed the job). Reading these, you understand why House does best when it does it alone.
“And remember,” admonished Roat as I departed, “please don’t call us retro!” I looked at Roat, his No. 2 blade buzz, Coke-bottle glasses and affection for things such as custom-built carburetors and his general gee-whiz good humor. Nostalgic? Yes. Reverential? Yes. But retro?
When you devote your career, talent and passion to rediscovering the lost art forms and the artisans who made them, you can get lumped in with curiosity shop owners, gee-gaw nuts, cultists or Dragon*Con types. But House is more cultural anthropologist than retrospective. They’re always on the hunt for the next new thing.
So if they find their inspiration among the dusty, cluttered basements and attics of American design, who cares? If they have more in common with George Jetson than Paul Saffo, so what? At least House makes something for a living—things people want. They’re their own best client, their rent’s cheap and they share credit with former employees. Retro? No—they ought to be the wave of the future. ca