Like all good subversives, House Industries hides in plain sight. As typeface designers, they operate in a niche typically reserved for highbrow gentlemen in handmade spectacles who spend their years deriving new fonts from the 16th-century French master Claude Garamond. It is a world where a debate on the relative merits of a serif font (in which lines extend from the ends of letters) versus a sans serif (no extensions) can end in a kind of effete rhapsody: "Sweet but not saccharine, earnest but not grave," reads one top type maker's description of its work, "designed to hit just the right notes of forthrightness, credibility, and charm."
House designers are not like those people.
Started by Rich Roat and Andy Cruz in 1993, the Wilmington, Delaware-based firm takes its cues from a different place. As devotees of the lowbrow cultures of hard-core metal and punk music, hot rods, skateboarding, and custom car pinstriping, House is like a mastiff-schnauzer mix dropped into the non-sporting group at Westminster. A typical House type description sounds more like this: "Our eight island-inspired Tiki Type fonts became only one of many pieces of a much larger story... The hand-painted brochure emulated the essential Polynesian-restaurant menu. It included our own brand of Tiki mythology, with each font relating to a career highlight of Hawaiian entertainer Don House, who moonlighted as our customer-service manager... Tiki Type was also our first font collection to feature music tracks... the Tiki Type CD."
Strategically random and vertiginously eccentric, House has won a following across the entertainment-industrial complex. Lost creator J.J. Abrams says, "They're artists; their work is extraordinary." Long before creating his now-iconic Barack Obama "Hope" print, Obey Giant founder Shepard Fairey designed a poster in homage to the '70s-style custom vans he had seen in a House catalog for its Street Van font. "They combined a more sophisticated sensitivity to design with the graphics [the font] was parodying," Fairey says. "They raised it to a whole new artistic level." Even Van Halen front man David Lee Roth is a fan, proclaiming on his talk show that House "makes all the best typefaces."
Through the unlikely vehicle of type, House has slipped its way into the zeitgeist. And by earning the admiration of the creative elite (120,000 design machers receive the company's mail-order catalogs), the House aesthetic consistently elbows its way into the broader commercial world. For example, when House turned the hand-lettered style of rock-poster artist Chris "Coop" Cooper into a line of retail fonts, Cooper's fringe cool (his work often features buxom, nude she-devils engaged in unnatural acts) suddenly found its way onto the Lucky Charms box, in the form of the typeface Coop Heavy. When The Simpsons Movie debuted, the Krusty-O's cereal boxes sold in 7-Elevens featured House fonts. The statistics Fox flashes during NFL games? House United. Indeed, for a licensing fee anywhere between $160 and $500, corporations as winsome as(Funhouse) and omnivorous as (Ed Interlock) repeatedly turn to House to crank up their visibility. Same goes for , , Taco Bell, and Toys "R" Us as well as louder brands such as ESPN, FreshJive, H&M, MTV, and SpikeTV. "I appreciate the way their intelligence, humor, and sense of history seem to make every other designer look like the pompous, pretentious nerd he no doubt is," Cooper says. "Modern design is Margaret Dumont; House is the Marx Brothers."
Most of us don't spend much time thinking about letters, let alone how they are created, yet their shape and appearance have a profound effect. "I often compare typography to lighting design," explains Ellen Lupton, the contemporary design curator at Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. "When you walk into a poorly lit room, you may not know the lighting is the culprit, but you know something is wrong. Likewise, great typography makes people feel good, and effective typography quickly becomes associated with strong businesses and brands."
Originally graphic designers (they still occasionally create a font-inspired logo; check out the one they did for the lingerie company Agent Provocateur), Roat and Cruz found they didn't like dealing with mercurial clients who start the conversation with "You rock!" and quickly segue to "Can you play 'Freebird'?" After getting calls about some lettering they did on a job for a paper company, the pair started experimenting with different letterforms; they built one of their first fonts based on a stencil from the local hardware store.
The House process is decidedly old school: First, a concept is hashed out, then it's sketched in pencil and ink, then refined digitally. A typeface can take years to develop—especially in the OCD world of House—and a standard font has approximately 228 characters. Most type designers create a family that includes roman, italic, bold, and bold italic, and House builds families, too, but in a black-sheep extended sort of way. Its first line, obliquely called the General Collection, features more than 50 treatments, including Crackhouse, Halfway House, Slawterhouse, and Outhouse.
Just as Warhol elevated the soup can, House mines the miscellaneous minutiae of post—World War II suburban pop culture. Whether it's monster movies, packaging for Japanese toy robots, or the lettering on punk-rock fliers (House was basically responsible for those grungy, distressed fonts that were ubiquitous during the '90s), the firm finds the type translation. House's Fabulous typeface, from the Vegas collection, was a throwback to the swinging domain of Sammy and Frank, when all marquee lettering was done by hand. Its louche elegance caught the attention of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which licensed the font for its "Only Vegas" campaign.
Just as Warhol elevated the soup can, House Industries mines the miscellaneous minutiae of post—World War II pop culture and finds the type translation.
Roat, 43, says he and the crew bring a blue-collar approach to design and prefer to think of the company's work as revival rather than retro. He's also quick to dismiss the idea that graphic design, and the art world as a whole, is based on originality. "Total BS," he says. "We can't help but be influenced. Some designers are good at covering up influences or playing them down enough to make people think they're doing something original. We celebrate our sources, publicize them, even introduce our customers, fans, and critics to something they never knew about and make them appreciate it. And maybe even get them to not rip it off."
As with music and film, piracy, these days, is a scourge for type designers (a font is just bits of digital data). In response, House has mounted a stubbornly analog defense by creating lush packages for their offerings that became collectible in themselves. The space-age 3009 font set is delivered in a die-cut spaceship straight out of a '50s sci-fi flick. A cardboard bowling-ball bag for the House-a-Rama line was so well designed, a mail-order company used it as a model for real bowling-ball bags. And upon the release of a sleek, modern font named Chalet, House went Spinal Tap, creating a fictional designer (René Albert Chalet), then recruiting some of the biggest names in typography for testimonials for the packaging. The joke even duped a design magazine into proposing a feature on the rediscovered "master." "It's a way of saying, Do you want the real stuff, or do you want to go down to Canal Street and buy a knockoff?" says Roat. "There's not much Prada can do about Canal Street. But there's still a question of integrity and quality." And it's a question House Industries answers every day.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.