As we get ready to open our first honeygrow location south of the Philadelphia area, we are proud to feature House Industries, located in pastoral Yorklyn, Delaware. As they begin writing their second book, we caught up with the guys reflecting upon a career spanning decades which began when a couple of punk kids (Andy Cruz and Rich Roat) had a 'crazy' idea to strike out on their own. Brothers Andy and brother Adam gave us a tour of the showroom attached to a working U.S. Post Office located on a quiet winding back country road just outside of Wilmington. Andy, Adam, Rich and Ken Barber held court to give us some insight into their continually evolving world of design.
If you've ever noticed a 'font' or bought a greeting card, you've definitely been exposed to House Industries perhaps without even realizing it. What started as a custom font empire has exploded into a world of objects, textiles and illustration. Eschewing the notion of "the brand," House Industries finds inspiration in the creation of everyday objects built to an obsessive standard of excellence in both form and craft. Always respectful of their roots—from punk rock to hot rods, skate culture to graphic arts—their work has transcended early 'design geek' to be embraced by an expansive audience around the world. From their early custom font kit mailers to their Herman Miller collaborations to the Hasami ceramics to their most recent Eldreth housewares, there is seemingly no medium that doesn't benefit from their carefully honed design aesthetic, fueled by their genuine love for each subject.
hg: you're working on your second book, and it's been ten years since the first book, ironically, the House Ten Year Book… what's changed the most? what will be different with this book?
andy: as we go through the process, we're realizing it's the same project just with different materials. we're still hard headed designers, but it's more about working on meaningful projects. If we were better businessmen, we probably wouldn't be spending time on most of the distractions we're involved in.
ken: the book has forced us to think about how we work—not sure if that's a good or a bad thing—but it's forced us to deconstruct our 'process.' It's forced us to try to explain it to other folks. The diversity in the type of projects has expanded —the company started as a more of a traditional graphic design studio, but the fonts really kicked off the self-initiated project idea. It grew from there, creating packaging to market the typefaces and then that grew into the products associated with the typefaces. Then we started creating projects independent of a typeface, which started to move us away from the traditional graphic design work.
hg: how do you choose what kind of products you make now?
ken: (laughs) by what Andy needs at his house—need tea towels? I guess we're making tea towels…
andy: but really it's about doing something that's either fun or fills some sort of need. We often use products to cross promote other projects. See that big stack of new stationery? It reinforces our love of printing and the touchy-feely aspect of paper, but all the artwork and patterns are made from our "digital" font products.
hg: is there a “key” to creating a great font?
ken: it's about how well it's used—based on the intention of the user…
"There's no great font, there's how well it's designed based on it's intended purpose."
There's an emotional connection while you're creating the font, and of course there are basic, inescapable principles to creating standard Latin letterforms that work well together. But those have largely been determined by history and principles developed over centuries of letterform creation. We are extremely detail oriented and we care about the process. You want to feel proud about what you create.
hg: do you have any favorite fonts that you've created?
ken: every font is simultaneously the favorite and the most loathed at the time as it's being created. We don't really have any favorites. We get kind of detached from the process and the end product. Recently, my wife asked if I get excited seeing the Las Vegas logo and how our font is used, but it's not like a child, once they're out there, they're not so 'precious.' Not to say, that we don't care, we certainly care about the projects, but once they go out into the wild (laughs)—they turn '18' real fast. I think musicians must have a similar feeling about how their songs end up being used.
andy: we'd be lying to you if we said we didn't get excited and it's great to see it. But then I think Ken's right, you're creating a tool for other people to use. I get more excited when I see it used well, which is rare (laughs).
ken: we all care about the end result. But that bit of detachment allows us to not get in each other's way when a critical eye is applied. You may not always see things the same way, but we trust one another…
"…I always know that with anything that comes out of here, we want to feel proud. It speaks to the trust we have in one another, and it's key that we don't take things too personally."
hg: these days it seems everyone is a “designer”– self-taught programmer, font creator, etc.—how do you view yourselves within this new world?
ken: um, dinosaurs (laughs). We're just a lot grouchier. We've turned into the old, curmudgeony, cynical veterans.
andy: but it's funny, we talk about when we were…
"…in our 20s, and back then there were people who were grumpy about what we were doing. And then there were people who were open to new ideas. And that's the balance you need to find—where we don't discount what's new. We all have our favorite 'old' bands, but it would be absurd to dismiss the creation of quality new music."
ken: I just have to remember those old farts and keep reminding myself that I don't want to be like them. That won't do anyone any good.
andy: but with that said, I think we have come to a point where we know enough about ourselves enough to know what we like, and we know how we like to approach projects. There's definitely a balance to strike.
hg: back in the mid-2000's, you tried retail with a London storefront in Soho, but today, your storefront here is modest and more of a showroom. any future plans for a retail space or way to offer your products in a brick + mortar setting?
andy: we had it for about a year—from 2005 to 2006. It was retail based around a clothing project. We look at that as one of the great experiments of House Industries because it allowed us to do alot of things we couldn't do at the time. It was our first interior—wallpapering ceilings, doing things that at the time most graphic designers think about doing but never get to—the romantic idea of having a retail space. But to me the big takeaway was being able to do all of these different elements, whether it was a piece of clothing or lettering…
hg: how do these collaborations come about? do you approach them or vice versa?
andy: both. I think we're fans first and we try to work with people we have an appreciation for. If there's a fit, we try to do something that makes sense. It could be a font collection based on someone's lettering you admire and you share that story. Or it's a mutual appreciation for something as real as ceramics. That's one of the oldest mediums—we get to decorate it and it's pretty intimate. It's a very personal experience when it's a vessel that transports food to your mouth.
ken: that's weird when you think about it that way… (laughs)
hg: how do you see yourselves making objects in the physical world as the digital age continues to expand and evolve?
rich: I don't think we have any objection to any new media out there. I think that despite the new tools that are out there today, we still see with our eyes, touch with our hands—we still live in a three-dimensional world. In order to create something you still have to understand how the form works and how the medium behaves. It still has to work, look nice, be comfortable, if you're going to put it into your house.
ken: now that you see all of these new ways of doing things, there seems to be a backlash at times. You see people going back to the original way of doing things; people have picked back up with the letterpress and screenprinting as a way to take a break from the digital way of doing things. That never left our sight, we've always appreciated these original processes.
"the technology is great, but there's a point where it's just not all that satisfying. Take the current movement towards 'real'–be it heritage or things made by hand with care. Pixels on a flat screen can't replace the physical object or experience…at least not yet."
hg: why Delaware? Pros and cons to being based in the First State?
andy: Rich and I are Delaware natives. It wasn't by design, just convenience. Ken comes to us from Reading, PA by way of Brooklyn. Ken's gotten the perspective of working in "the big city"—but to me, the Delaware thing wasn't by design, it was out of convenience. But we love to travel…
ken: I went to Tyler School of Art, and it used to be that you were trained to seek out the big cities. But it was ingrained into us that you went to New York City with all the design studios and advertising agencies, but when you think about it from back in the early 90s through all of the technological advances, you realize you don't have to go anywhere really…
andy: I think we made that a conscious decision after we realized the design community in Delaware was very conservative. We decided to try mailing out some catalogs and picked up the phone…
"…and started chasing the people we wanted to work with. If the product is good, does it really matter what zip code it comes from?"
hg: knowing that you guys seek out the projects you want to work on, is there a 'dream project' out there for you?
ken: it might sound lame, but in a way, we're working on our dream jobs. Having freedom is both a curse and a blessing—you can practically do anything. It's not always about getting to choose the projects you want to do. When it happens it is pretty great, but it's not always that easy.
andy: Hmmm, dream project, that's a tough one. Sometimes the dream project might sound ideal—a car, a hotel—they sound cool, but I still come back to the enjoyment of doing a little sketch or printing a few t-shirts for friends.
hg: In a way, making these 'every day objects' is like the inverse of a 'dream project' because it's something people interact with on a daily basis…
andy: Yeah, I think that's the 'dream project' in its own way. Ken jokes about us making things that I'd like to have for my house, but I guess these are the 'dream projects.' These are things we have to live with. Sure, I can go to Target and buy a cutting board or find a cheaper coffee mug, but we understand what goes into making this Eldreth pottery. To see the people behind the product and how many hands are needed to make something as simple as a mug or plate adds a different kind of value to the piece. It goes back to the idea of surrounding yourself with things you admire and respect.
ken: some people think of that dream job as the big corporate job or something that gets a lot of eyeballs on it. Although, I like that part of it it comes at a cost, a lot of red tape, corporate bullshit.
"I think the dream job can be a small job. There's the freedom to it, the unobstructed project. Wherever we find that is the dream job."
The typeface projects here, we design for ourselves first as we're the ones who are going to use it. Having that ability to define that job ourselves that's pretty great.
andy: unless you suffer through something, you don't have the same appreciation. Having been though some of these projects now definitely provides perspective.
hg: we are fascinated by the interlinking blocks custom to House. where did the idea originate from?
andy: it's such a simple form and material. I think we turned a corner when we saw our letters, numbers and patterns being used as a toy to help kids learn.
hg: At what point did you realize you were building a brand?
andy: I guess it was when we realized we were putting ourselves into it. Selling a product, not a service. Once you have this product out there—I don't know how conscious it was, but we would try to inject our personality into projects that helped built an identity. But the word 'branding' is a hard term. It is usually associated with something a bit contrived.
ken: It resembles the conscious building of a brand. When I think of branding, and all of the things that go along with it, it's necessary these days—it's this thing that you've got to do. But for us, I think we are sometimes working toward the opposite of that.
hg: how do you balance the creative side with the business side of things?
rich: well, I guess we don't really and somehow it all works out? We're still here, so—so far, so good? There's a lot of business talk in here. We talk to licensing partners, and we just had to deal with this scary contract, but if that's the cost of getting the message out there… At the end of the day, I think that if we were great businessmen we wouldn't be in this business (laughs). Everything we do here is passion driven—makes it not such a terribly profitable place to work, but…
hg: where do you see House in ten years?
ken: colonizing Mars.
andy: fortunately we're still enthused and able to continue to be excited about each new product. Like the fonts, we don't have to dwell on the accomplishments because we have new projects we're excited about working on next. Obviously, we want to keep making physical objects…
hg: you must get plenty of internship requests and job openings?
andy: we do, but interns can be a pain-in-the ass for a small group like ours–it's a commitment and if we're going to invest the time teaching them how we work, it has to be a fit. Complaints aside, our last few interns have become invaluable House employees.
hg: do you have a favorite food in the studio?
rich: the best food we have at the studio is when we have an event and we get these amazing cheese plates from Talula's Table. They make them up on our Ampersand cutiting boards and this woman over there draws these amazing illustrated maps about each of the cheeses.
As huge fans of their work, their commitment to their roots and passions serve as a constant inspiration. Keep up with them by signing up for their mailing list (which will also get you a free House font!) and keep an eye out for them at our Delaware locations. With a few vegetarians in the mix, we're excited to bring our customized, very vegetarian-friendly menu to their backyard!