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It’s a thin line: A Review of House Industries
By Rudy VanderLans

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.

Book Information
House Industries by House Industries
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Die Gestalten Verlag (August 2003)
ISBN: 393112620X
Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Dec.20.2004 BY Speak Up
Joseph’s comment is:

I gotta say, I went to a lecture by House Industries not too long ago. I am/was definitely a "follower" of their work. However after sitting through an hour and a half of their work I started to realize something. They've only really done one thing completely original. The use of overlying metallic inks is intriguing and not something you see all of the time. But i swear if i had to see one more friggin' hot rod or car, i was going to flip out.

I too have a love/hate relationship with House. After the lecture I think it's more 40/60 love/hate. Oh well, they are still better than most.

On Dec.20.2004 at 09:08 AM
Jeff Croft’s comment is:

I like most of House's work, but I now have a hate componenet to my relationship with them, too -- I believed that Chalet story and now I feel stupid. And I hate them for it. :)

On Dec.20.2004 at 10:41 AM
Don Julio’s comment is:

Where they also excel is in the area of marketing — another American phenomenon.

I never quite understood what purpose this prank served.

These two statements were further apart in your writing, but the first seems to answer the second. Guerrilla marketing, counter culture, subversive tactics that combat traditional mainstream approaches often build a groundswell that breaks through the clutter. Ryan McGuiness, Shepard Fairey, Ze Frank are current examples, even Claude Garamond's interview at Speak Up.

I applaud the tongue and cheek boldness. It isn't necessarily for those who don't get the inside joke. Those who want to appropriate hipness, or jump on what's cool -and print something for mass consumption without verification, probably deserve the prank.

A Dutch designer that used to work for me often questioned things like House or CSA (Charles Anderson) that were "sooo last century," but you tap into the essence near the end of your essay. Perhaps the brief span of history in America, compared to the rest of the world, is one of the catalysts the perpetuate the proliferation of iconography from yesteryear. When, afterall, was our heyday? It wasn't the rise or fall of Rome, nor do we have our Waterloo - save the American Revolution. In many ways, the period work symbolizes America's post war coming of age and emergence as a definitive world presence (good or bad). The idealization, commercialization, industrialization of the western world also lives on in this period work. Our history is still relatively close by in the past and there seems by some, to remain a nostaligic yearning to stay connected to it.

Safe, happy, generic, bland, homogenized, superficial, sugar coated, commercial (as in art). Sounds like the place I grew up. What's not to love?

On the flip side this represents what corporate America collectively lacks in original thinking and taking creative risks. Compare to defintive Dutch, German, Japanese design, or advertising in Europe (ie., Graphis, or Archive). We complain about being couch potatoes, but at the same time seem to relish the time that is spent there. A bit of an oxymoron aren't we?

As much as I enjoy the trip down memory lane that House provides, it does often make me wonder - What’s next?

Love/Hate Score: 50/50

On Dec.20.2004 at 10:42 AM
Armin’s comment is:

HI's work excels when they do custom lettering for logos, posters, covers, etc. Their implementation of good ol-fashioned lettering into present-day ventures is the most exciting part of their work. From their font colletion, I find myself attracted only to Neutraface, the rest of the collections, because I would never use them, don't do much for me. The new Benguiat Script is beautiful and Ed Interlock is a technological marvel. Other than these specific instances, I don't buy into the marketing hoo-ha.

Love/Indifference score: 30/70

On Dec.20.2004 at 02:00 PM
Lenny’s comment is:

I'm not quite sure how I feel about House Industries. Personally, I absolutely love most of their promo materials, its just fun. On the other hand, since many of their fonts are based on hand/custom lettering and such, are they making custom lettering not-so-custom? There's only so many times you can use Ed Interlock without it looking like a "logo with Ed Interlock." I personally wouldn't have much of a use for many of their faces, a pillow though, I could use a nice pillow.

On Dec.20.2004 at 02:46 PM
Don Julio’s comment is:

Hate is perhaps a bit harsh in hindsight - in light of the holiday season, let me revise my rating criteria:

Love / Not Love: 50/50

On Dec.20.2004 at 03:40 PM
Tan’s comment is:

HI's work is like classic rock from the 70s — it always sounds good when you catch it occasionally, but you can't live with it 24/7.

I'm a big fan of their work, and will continue to use them occasionally. Some of their stuff is surprisingly well-crafted and some of their stuff is just forgettable bubble gum. That just shows that they love what they do, but don't take it too seriously.

Love/Just ok with score: 32.3 : 67.7

On Dec.20.2004 at 03:56 PM
vibranium’s comment is:

House, I belive, are the "Howard Stern" of the design world. Honest, prolific, sometimes shocking (the prank, the rock shows, etc) but always genuine and irreverent (believe me, "tiki" and "kustom Kulture" to 80% of America is irreverent.) And to that, you love them or you hate them. I love them. And Howard. And if I ever run into one of them at the Christiana Mall, I may just say Hi.

On Dec.20.2004 at 04:00 PM
Custom Kahuna’s comment is:

Rich, Andy, Ken, and Co. are a fine bunch. Prolific, down-to-earth guys who have probably contributed more great design work to our American landscape than I ever will. I was really stoked to bring 'em to Columbus a few years back, even if it did become the most expensive CSCA gig in 32 years. They were worth every dime. And the new book is a production marvel. Plus I get a nod in it.

My hat's off to you, House. Rock on!

On Dec.20.2004 at 04:05 PM
A different Andy Cruz’s comment is:

Rich Roat came to speak at our local AIGA meeting a couple of months back. He was a great, down to earth guy and had a lot of funny stories. Most compelling though was the whole back story of how they got started, what they went through, their first promotions and font offerings, etc. All told with great humor and perspective - so it gave me an added appreciation of their work. Rich said he loved Phoenix "because it has tons of great wig stores". An interesting guy, for sure, and we had a good laugh when I introduced myself.

Love/Indifference score: 60/40

On Dec.20.2004 at 05:07 PM
Chris Rugen’s comment is:

I've always been into House Industries ("always" meaning since '99, when I discovered them at school). I envy their ability to (appear to) revel so fully in what they like/love/enjoy. They aren't snooty or too serious, but are clearly committed to respecting, celebrating, and furthering type design and the people who've taken it to this point.

I'll probably never buy more than one or two typefaces from their current collection (Neutra being one of them), but I'm always curious what they're up to. So, cheers to them.

Envy/Not so interested score: 70/30

On Dec.20.2004 at 05:24 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

> 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... ...I never quite understood what purpose this prank served.

Mayhaps it's a tongue-in-cheek rejoinder to the elevation of a certain wife, Mrs. Eaves, into typographic history.

On Dec.20.2004 at 05:47 PM
M Kingsley’s comment is:

Sorry, almost forgot my score —

M&M Meat Shops Masters of Curling, Humboldt, Sask:

Jeff Stoughton of Winnipeg over Pat Simmons of Moose Jaw


On Dec.20.2004 at 05:56 PM
Feluxe Socksmell’s comment is:

(they should) ignore the past and invent the future. - Rudy

as we all know the past is never really dead, right?

while i agree with Rudy's points on House, its hard to imagine Modula without Neville Brody. And Neville Brody witour Rodchencho, etc, etc.

Type design, as any other art form, is like one big long song that everyone jumps in on.

i bought the book too, though not for loving house (its a nice book!).

the one thing i really dislike about House are their terribly naive architectural drawings. I get the other ironis refs, but this seems to be a real glimpse inside the soul of House- which says "Hey , I can really draw". And of course, they cant.


On Dec.20.2004 at 08:01 PM
Steven’s comment is:

HI's work is like classic rock from the 70s — it always sounds good when you catch it occasionally, but you can't live with it 24/7.

Tan, I agree with that statement, only I'd put the musical timeframe more appropriately to the 50's and 60's. "I Fought the Law", "Little Duce Coupe", "Green Tamborine", "California Dreamin' ", "White Rabbit", etc. etc.

In many ways, the period work symbolizes America's post war coming of age and emergence as a definitive world presence (good or bad). The idealization, commercialization, industrialization of the western world also lives on in this period work. Our history is still relatively close by in the past and there seems by some, to remain a nostaligic yearning to stay connected to it.

Being born in '59, this era has a particular appeal to me, conjuring up early memories, mixed with the rosy myths of a past that never really existed. And while I consider myself to be very "pro-green" in many, many ways, I still have a lust for the stylistic over-indulgence of certain industrial icons of that period.

When you need the fix, I'd give 'em a 90/10 love/not love. In the big picture of Design, 50/50. I think they fill their specialized niche quite well.

On Dec.20.2004 at 08:44 PM
Jason T.’s comment is:

Watching House Industries lecture four years ago at a Bowling Alley in Omaha, I was awestruck by their passion for type. They love letters—the history, form, and vernacular. House also loves music. The four designers lectured, assembled their instruments, and then pumped out some tunes while we bowled the night away. Yes, House rocks—literally. At least they did back then.

They resurrect flavors and tastes. Yes, Rudy, House is a tribute band. They do covers, and they do them well. You can't place them in any one category. They cross too many stylings. But they're not so much a band, as a music channel—or a show. Watching House and looking at their work reminds me of American Bandstand, Soul Train, and Solid Gold.

On Dec.21.2004 at 10:41 AM
Cheshire Dave’s comment is:

I may be wrong about this, but I think in the early-mid 90s, kitsch revival was the new thing. Well, that and PostScriptizing 80s-era bitmap fonts, but some other foundry had the market cornered on that one.

In some sense, Rudy VanderLans is exactly the right person to write this review, as Emigre and House did more or less the same thing at the same time, just in different ways: two startup foundries creating demand for their product through well-executed marketing. What was Emigre magazine if not an opportunity to put Emigre fonts in use and show what typography and publication design could look like? Sure, there was an intellectual component to the magazine that was missing from House's postcards and other publications, but the nut was still the same: get well-designed specimens out there into the hands of the people who would want to use them. And, you know, there were Emigre t-shirts pretty much from the start.

(Right now, somewhere in the world, some type geek who came of age in the 90s is probably sitting on a sofa, wearing an Emigre hat t-shirt and reclining against a Chalet pillow. Perhaps even as they read this.)

Anyway, I like House. They know what they love, they love what they do, they do it so well, and they don't need to answer to anyone but their customers (and they're still small enough to respond personally). I don't buy everything they sell -- in fact, the only thing I've actually bought of theirs is Neutraface, but I adore it -- but I'm extremely happy they've made a living off it this long. They, like Emigre, are an indie success story, and not because of a fluke but because they're talented designers who respect the work of the giants who came before them, and have actively brought their idols to a new generation. They're kind of like the Ani Difranco of type, I guess.

If I would fault them for one thing, it's for doggedly sticking to selling by package instead of by font. I know they say their fonts are thus much less expensive per font, but that's a moot argument if I buy a package only for one of the fonts in it. They'd be wise to take a page from Emigre's book, so to speak.

On Dec.21.2004 at 07:32 PM
Rick G’s comment is:

The thing is this, though:

When my SCAN button gets stuck and I wind up listening to "The Lemon Song" or "Paranoid", I crank it all the way and love all four minutes. How can't you?

No, Sabbath stays off the iPod most of the time, but when it's on it's really on and it's okay to revel in the cheese. HI is exactly the same thing: I absolutely love the stuff they do, because it's well made and damn if they aren't totally doing it. But do I use anything from them on a regular basis? Uh, no. No way.

So I give them 100 / 100

However! For those of you who like HI and / or like what they like, might I slightly pimp my friend Kirsten's gallery to you, and / or her new book?

On Dec.22.2004 at 02:58 AM
LorenzoMorales’s comment is:

House Industries is good!

On Dec.22.2004 at 11:53 AM
KMcC’s comment is:

I just took a class with the guys from House (Ken and Tal-he just took over this semester for Andy) and I loved it. You folks don't know what you're talking about if you've never spent more than ten minutes talking to these guys. They are so in love with letters and their history and they are so good at doing STUFF with it. They are known primarily as a foundry, but they do design work as well. They also have a clothing boutique in SoHo London. .. Then there's the House Band (which is still in existence) These guys rock AND they take the time to teach college kids about writing lettering and typography one semsester every year.

Love/not Love 99.9/.1 (They gave me an A, but they sometimes overdo it on the cheese factor).

On Dec.23.2004 at 12:01 AM
KMcC’s comment is:

Emigre is a good foundry too, but the products at House are better by far.


On Dec.23.2004 at 12:03 AM
Armin’s comment is:

> You folks don't know what you're talking about if you've never spent more than ten minutes talking to these guys.

Oh, they are lovely people: funny, passionate, smart, hip, etc. I have seen their presentations two or three times, I have taken a workshop, I have laughed, I have cried. Still, work is work; yes, tied to the personality behind it, but to form an opinion of the body of work it is a bit superfluous to base it on their niceties.

On Dec.23.2004 at 09:01 AM
BlueStreak’s comment is:

Neutraface, Neutraface, Neutraface!

I wanted to use Emigre's Senator in 1989 because it had that Neville Brody kind of mojo working. But I never got a chance. It was a prematurely hackneyed font because it was so universally adored. Does this mean that Neutraface is the Senator of 2005? It looks that way.

Respect Score: 96 out of 100

(I've got my fingers crossed that they'll digitize the entire Solotype Catalog... hint, hint.)

On Dec.23.2004 at 02:04 PM
Kenneth FitzGerald’s comment is:

With all these music references and the era HI harken to, shouldn't all the scoring be done a la American Bandstand? I got a chance to see this book thanks to a former student who brought it by (hi, Ben) and it rocks as much as all their work does. But I, too, wish for more than the ace cover band. Something like The Cramps perhaps. Or does Art Chantry have that...er...covered?

On Dec.24.2004 at 04:13 PM