Something tells me I should perhaps not be writing this review. It’s been said that it’s bad business to praise your competition. And, reversely, it would seem like sour grapes to criticize them. The type industry is a rather small and competitive world, and as a type foundry owner it’s perhaps best if I would remain neutral in my assessment of fellow foundries. But House Industries are a different lot. They make competition and being in this profession great fun. And as masters of self-deprecation you couldn’t hurt their feelings with criticism even if you tried. So after reading the recently released House Book, I couldn’t resist sitting down to reflect on their impressive career.
House Industries came on the scene in the mid 90s, and their first efforts barely foreshadowed what was to come. Type foundries were sprouting like mushrooms. Nearly every day my mail would contain a poster, postcard, or brochure announcing the release of a yet another set of fonts by yet another new foundry/person. Many have since disappeared, probably realizing that making and selling fonts is not nearly as easy as first imagined. But the flyers, booklets, and catalogs from House Industries never stopped coming. And with each offering their work showed more maturity and an increasingly distinct approach to type design and particularly type marketing.
Still, I have a love/hate relationship with the work of House Industries. On the one hand I hate their work because it never made sense to me why young designers would be so obsessed with the past. To be young offers some rare opportunities. It’s the one time in your life when you can claim ignorance and explore with complete abandon and wild imagination. To be young offers an opportunity to create your own reality, to make new work, to ignore the past and invent the future. House Industries doesn’t seem to be very interested in that. The only future they’re interested in is the future as imagined in sci-fi movies of the 50s and 60s. Curiously, however, they don’t like their work to be labeled “Retro.” They prefer a subtler term; “Ironic Retro,” which almost sounds redundant to me.
On the other hand, I love House Industries because when House Industries mines the past it usually involves putting a spotlight on the very people whose work they resurrect. The fonts of Big Daddy Roth are a good example. Being from Holland, and not knowing much about car culture, to me Big Daddy Roth sounded like the name of a German porn star. But through the efforts of House Industries I was introduced to the amazing world of Big Daddy and his custom car exploits.
Not only did House Industries revive and preserve Big Daddy’s vernacular lettering, they made sure he benefited from the venture as much as they did. Appropriate royalties were paid, and a friendship was solidified. A similar project has just been finished regarding the well-known New York type designer Ed Benguiat. A 70s icon of American type design, Benguiat echoes the blue collar, roll up your sleeves, craft oriented, design approach of House Industries. They are a perfect match.
Another reason I love House is because, like Benguiat, their work exudes Americana. The stuff that made me fall in love with graphic design; the script type on American baseball jerseys, customized product logos, titling on comic book covers, and other vernacular typography, is where House Industries resides. Check out their custom lettering and logo designs in this book and you’ll know what I mean. Decidedly non-intellectual, and masters of their craft, they are prototypical American artisans. It’s easy to imagine them as the pin striping grease monkeys they’ve often portrayed in their type promotions.
Where they also excel is in the area of marketing — another American phenomenon. While most foundries and type distributors concentrate their efforts of selling type primarily on their websites, House shows us that print is alive and well and remains one of the most effective ways to promote typefaces. Like no other foundry before them (and, possibly, after them) House Industries has refined and expanded the notion of font promotions. Not content with printing simple type specimens, House creates elaborate contexts for their typefaces to exist in, including the manufacture of such curious type promotional items as humidors, pillows, wallets, and chairs. These packaging schemes are at times so extravagant, and are created with such attention to detail and love for the subject, it makes the typefaces almost seem like an excuse to initiate spinoff products.
I’m not always enamored with their packaging and promotional efforts, and the contexts they create for their typefaces are sometimes downright dubious. For Chalet, a modern sans serif similar to Helvetica and Futura, House created a fictional character named Rene Albert Chalet, a supposedly unknown and forgotten designer from the 40s. The idea was to show how ignorant most graphic designers are about the history and activity of type design. The hoax was pulled off so convincingly, with the type specimens containing quotes about Chalet by some of the world’s leading contemporary type designers, that most people believed the story, and some design magazines even printed articles about the font and its inspiration without ever realizing that Rene Albert Chalet was a fictional character.
I never quite understood what purpose this prank served. It doesn’t take much to pull off a hoax like this since typeface design already suffers from a great deal of anonymity and lack of understanding. You can tell people just about anything about the origins of a font and they couldn’t care less. This was made obvious by the fact that no one ever challenged or questioned the existence of Rene Albert Chalet and House’s claims that the design of Chalet preceded Helvetica by 13 years. Obviously Chalet owes much to Max Miedinger’s Helvetica and Paul Renner’s Futura. I would have loved to see House give these two giants the same kind of treatment they gave Big Daddy Roth and Benguiat.
But ultimately Chalet falls short on another and more important level. Chalet is simply too universal looking and too bland, particularly for an outfit such as House. Those 50s European geometric reductivist type designs were so cold in their effort to appear “neutral,” not even House Industries, with their genetically predisposed flair for pizzazz and cool were able to transcend the original models to add something new. This made Chalet seem like an attempt to cash in on an infatuation with modern sans serifs and silhouetted figures that ruled graphic design and advertising around the turn of the century. I’m sure it made them a bundle of money.
Perhaps Chalet was an aberration, because soon after came a number of releases that were typical House Industry productions such as Las Vegas, Simian and Shag fonts. All harked back to 50s and 60s American pop culture icons. In between was Neutraface, another brush with 50s geometric modernism. But this time House paid the usual respect to its source, and expanded upon their model by giving us, amongst others, the exquisite Neutra italic. The Neutraface promotional material gave many insights into the life and times of Architect Richard Neutra whose signage for buildings provided the model for Neutraface. It also showed House’s passion for American modernism themes of the 50s, which fits them much better than the European kind. In what must have been one of the boldest promotional efforts any type foundry has undertaken, House bought the rights to manufacture the Boomerang chair, a chair designed by Neutra, shown in many of his interiors, but which was never put into production.
These items, such as chairs, pillows and humidors, allow House Industries to easily cross over and receive exposure for their typefaces in areas far outside graphic design. Their Tiki fonts were advertised in Tiki magazines, their Big Daddy Roth fonts shown in custom car magazines, and their Neutra faces in interior and industrial design publications. House Industries realizes that the use of typefaces today is not reserved for professional graphic designers alone, and they play no favorites when it comes to selling type.
House Industries also shows us that it is possible for graphic designers to become initiators and entrepreneurs rather than being solely service oriented and dependent upon client commissions. One can easily stick the “auteur” label on House Industries, but it sounds odd because they are so completely disinterested in academic concepts. If anything, they are like a really great cover band. They keep the recent past alive with the right combination of passion and craft, while not taking themselves too seriously. They rarely play originals, but boy do they make those oldies rock. And for that we should all love them.