Who’s in the House?
4 November 1999
If you’ve ever bought a typeface from House Industries then you have some idea of what makes this a slightly different experience from the usual ‘disk in an envelope’ delivery. Sometimes it may seem that the font is the minor part of the equation.
Rich Roat of House Industries tells us a little about how the company started out, where it’s been, and where it’s going.
From humble beginnings in 1994, just Rich and Andy Cruz, House now has six staff members, a type library of over 100 designs, a wealth of related paraphernalia and a new magazine – ‘House’. So, how did it start?
‘We met working at a little design firm here in Wilmington. Andy started as an intern there right out of high school and really had some serious talent. We pushed the owner to do new and different things (one of which was a font collection), but he wasn’t having it. We parted ways amicably, set up an office in a back room of an apartment and started working. Andy’s really the driving force behind the “House Industries aesthetic”, I’m more of the “ways and means committee”. Ken Barber joined us in November ’95, and since then he’s drawn most of the type and directs a lot of the illustration.’
Packaging for the Street Van and Rat Fink font collections, which are heavily influenced by Rich and Andy’s hot rodding backgrounds. Each Street Van is made to order, they feature both interior and exterior detailing, with the font disk residing under the queen size bed in the back of the van
You’re probably best known for your fonts, but that’s by no means the full story is it?.
‘Let me start off by saying that we always had an ulterior motive for doing fonts. In the beginning, they were just an excuse for doing some cool design work… we didn’t think anyone would actually buy them.’
And the “cool design work” is the effort you put into packaging those fonts?
‘We were looking at FontShop, Adobe and some other folks who were selling a lot of different fonts. The dealers and distributors have really strong identities but we felt that a lot of cool, unique typefaces lost their identity when they were “tossed into the mix” of those huge font collections. We watched our collection grow and had the same concerns. Doing the catalogues was also getting kind of monotonous, so we started cooking up the themes for the typefaces and the packaging just kind of fell into place. It gave us so many more places to go with the creativity and lots more media on which to apply it.
We spend a lot of time creating the collateral surrounding the font kits, which is totally unnecessary in today’s e-delivery world (actually before, too). But it’s what we like to do.’
That seems to have lead on to much more diverse areas, not just fonts, or their packaging?
The Tiki type collection, shown with the ‘Tiki Tube’ in which the ‘Tiki Tees’ are shipped. The Tiki Type CD has audio tracks featuring Man or Astroman?, the Volcanos, and Satan’s Pilgrims
‘You’re referring to some of the t-shirts and other stuff we sell, most of it was a result of selling the fonts. When we did the Rat Fink Fonts with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, it opened a whole other market of people just interested in the t-shirts. Some of the hot rod press picked up on the Rat Fink Fonts, but the folks calling had no use for fonts. We developed the Showcars, Monster and Pinstripe t-shirt lines around this market. Just as in the fonts we put an emphasis on packaging, which has made the products a marginal commercial success because the cost of the collateral material really jacks up the wholesale price. They’re all nice design samples though.’
There’s a fair amount of cross-reference into the hot rod scene, how did you get involved in that?
‘Andy and I definitely had some hot rodding in our backgrounds… Andy comes from a real hot rodding heritage as his father is a freehand pinstriper by trade and owns some serious hot rods. We raided his Car Craft and Hot Rod magazine collections for a lot of the early resource material for the Custom Papers Group stuff as well as the Street Van Fonts, the Rat Fink Fonts… and later the t-shirts.
Andy and his dad also had a huge collection of Revell 1/25th scale models of all of the Roth cars and figures, so that was a whole other pot of reference to dip into.
If you really look into the Roth stuff and the other car related products, you’ll see that authenticity was really important to us as we really tried to stay true to the resource material. For example, the Stripe T’s are packed in quart paint cans which are just like the ones used for “One Shot” paint, which is pretty much universally used by stripers and sign painters.’
How did it come about that the focus was typography, moreso than publishing, web design or general graphics? Where we’ve spoken about projects for other people it seems that those, again, were driven by the typographic aspects.
‘In the beginning we were, like a lot of designers, always finding ourselves searching for the perfect font for a specific project. You know as well as I do that there’s no such thing, so we started to draw our own. Most of the original fonts from our collection started as custom lettering for design projects. Funhouse was from lettering on a design job for the DuPont Company. Warehouse was for Calumet Carton Company. Housepaint was for a poster for a jazz concert series. Those first fonts weren’t engineered very well, but some have become mainstays in advertising today.
When we did a lot of the Custom Papers Group stuff, we really became enamoured with the crazy hand lettered treatments we were finding in the 60s and 70s era reference material. We tried to take it one step farther by refining the type and doing elaborate illustrated treatments with it. It’s some of the best work we’ve ever done and we had a lot of fun doing it. Actually a lot more fun than trying to tone the type down and making it work as fonts in the “Street Van” collection.’
How do you see that developing over the next few years, do you foresee having to go back to your catalogue to develop extended character sets for OpenType/ATSUI?
‘I can’t wait for OpenType/ATSUI authoring tools. That’s where I think our typography is really going to come into its own. Ken has drawn mountains of characters, interlocking combinations and ligatures for our stuff and I just can’t fit them all into 256 characters. It’s also going to be great to have that kind of decision-making power after you ship the fonts to the customer.’
Do you think looking at “themes” helps with momentum, keeps you moving forward?
‘Definitely. Developing the theme and all of the collateral is 90% of the fun. Who the hell wants to just sit around and draw, kern and engineer type all day… it’s so much more interesting when there’s a theme to build around.’
Could that become a problem in the future or do you think that the business will just keep developing, you’ll take the opportunities as they come?
‘People will always want unique typography to communicate with, but I honestly can’t see where we’ll be even 18 months down the road. There is definitely a growing untapped market out there for type, but whether or not we can continue to develop products to appeal to them I just don’t know. We’d really like to see the publishing end of things go somewhere, but that’s definitely going to be a long haul.’
Spreads from ‘House’ magazine issue 1, showing some of House Industries’ type treatments. Dimitri is a well known DJ – his latest album ‘Sacrebleu’ fuses nouveau swank, hipster hop and electro-lounge music. Wildwood is a beach resort town in southern New Jersey which has some of the best-preserved googie-style architecture in the world
But the publishing really is another issue altogether, you’ve just released the first edition of ‘House’ magazine, where’s that going?
‘Its main purpose is to look a little deeper into some of our influences, put them in context and present them in a way that is appealing to a broader audience.
Of late we’ve gotten away from doing traditional design and illustration work because the demands of that sort of thing was distracting us from working on the magazine and new kits.
We really want to keep House Magazine clean, simple and straightforward. There’s no ulterior motive in it… we’re just writing about things we find interesting and hope there’s an audience who can appreciate it.’
Cover of ‘House’ magazine
What kind of plans do you have for the magazine?
Right now, we want to do it three times per year and we’ve signed contracts with two big distributors. Our short-term goal is to build a decent paid subscription base.’
What’ll be in the next issue, when is it out?
Right now we’re shooting for December 15… we’re doing an interview with Ed Benguiat, a pictorial on Japanese vinyl toys, a significant spread on House 3009, the next generation of House Industries fonts and a lot of other stuff.’
You’re doing less work for outside clients, is that because you’re too busy pursuing your own projects?
‘We’re pretty much “self-contained” now… we haven’t had a real “paying” client for about a year and things seem to be humming along quite nicely. We’ve got a couple of interesting type collections in the works and we’re deep into production of House Magazine 2. As we get farther away from working with clients, I don’t see us going back unless it’s something really juicy and interesting.’
Any “dream jobs” that would tempt you?
‘We’re always jealous of the stuff Jonathan (Hoefler) does… we’d really like to do one of those big magazine custom type jobs.’
But now you have your own magazine?
‘The big push for next year is going to be creating custom headline and text faces for the magazine. It’s going to be a real tough nut for a bunch of display type hacks like us…’
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