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In our increasingly consumer-driven culture, making your product stand out is critical to a company’s bottom line. Billions of development dollars are spent every year in an effort to create recognizable brands, all of which would be logistically and aesthetically impossible without fonts, the most common form of visualized language in our digital age. 

For people without a background in design, fonts—the variety of creative typefaces that appear everywhere from restaurant signage to the very words on the screen in front of you— are perhaps not given deep consideration. Yet for graphic designers and others who deal in the aesthetics of language and advertising, they are a point of obsession. For an excellent case study in the reasons why, one need look no further than House Industries: A Type of Learning, a brand new special exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, which opens on Saturday, May 27th.House1

House Industries is a powerhouse design firm best known for its funky, artistic, and playful collections of fonts, developed and deployed so thoroughly over the last 25 years, you would be hard-pressed to go through a day without encountering some of their branding at work. Their font Neutraface, for example—which was originally developed for numerics on custom-ordered projects by architect Richard Neutra—has subsequently cropped up in branding for Wendy’s, Shake Shack, and the singer Adele. House Industries fonts are ubiquitous, from the text of The New Yorker, to the neon sign for Jimmy Kimmel Live!, and the company has worked with a wide range of collaborators on merchandising lines in most major lifestyle areas.

House8That’s part of what makes the exhibition at the Henry Ford a lot of fun—far from a boring or static tutorial on information design, the exhibition hall is a riotous and colorful display of hundreds of objects from House Industries and the Museum archives, showcasing the wide range of clothing, toys, home goods, poster art, and other cultural ephemera that has been developed in conjunction with House Industries or uses their fonts. 

House5Some examples of House Industries fonts and their commercial applications.The anteroom of the exhibition features the myriad pop cultural influences—everything from an Eames lounger, to an Evel Knievel jumpsuit, to a Misfits poster, to an early spaceman LEGO set—that impacted the development of House Industries members, including founding owner and Art Director, Andy Cruz. On hand to supervise the installation of the exhibition, Cruz took a moment aside to talk to CultureSource about the House Industries relationship to the cultural zeitgeist, which he describes as “fans first.”

“We’re trying to show the influence of stuff that we grew up with, stuff that turned us on to design, form, color—just that aesthetic experience, that you don’t want to lose,” said Cruz. “That’s always been a big part of what House is, let’s keep that enthusiasm and figure out how we can bake that into our day job.”

Collaborator and serigraph specialist David Dodde was also on hand, putting the finishing touches on a mock storefront display that showcases a complete line of HOUSE 33 clothing, created in conjunction with London designer and stylist Simon "Barnzley" Armitage in 2005. The clothing aesthetic is unabashedly biting the style of mid-90s California skate and surf culture. 

“It looks that way because those are all the original influences,” said Dodde, perched atop a ladder attending to details of the storefront facade. “We’re all ‘80s kids, so we’re not creating anything, we’re just stealing really well. It’s really about the accuracy of the theft—being honest and being true. Really, we’re paying homage.”

Just adjacent to the storefront, a trio of cars represents a progression from inspiration, to collaboration, to incorporation. First, a black hot rod built out by Cruz’s own father demonstrates one of his foundational influences; next, hot-rodder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s futuristic Mysterion show car, from the Henry Ford collection, symbolizes the moment House was able to partner with Roth to create a font for his iconic Rat Fink brand; finally, a 2017 Ford GT supercar, which features House fonts on the dash display and custom paint job. 

House webL: The hall of influences that shaped House Industries aesthetics. R: The House 33 clothing line storefront, and 2017 Ford GT featuring House Industries numerics and dashboard fonts.The connection to popular culture objects, such as Roth’s car, housewares from Heath Ceramics, and a Bearbrick design featuring a custom House Industries ampersand, make this show a perfect marriage with the Henry Ford Museum, which dedicates itself to collecting (among other things) the output of influential designers. 

In truth, House Industries is living the dream: coming full circle to work with the culture that inspired them, and getting to push it through to the next generation. For those nostalgic for their pre-Millenial childhood, or looking for a literal object lesson in the power of design to shape culture, you could do no better than a visit to the new exhibition at the Henry Ford.

All images courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.

The opening reception for House Industries: A Type of Learning is June 8th. The $85 ticket for this event includes a signed copy of a new publication launched in conjunction with the exhibition—House Industries: The Process is the Inspiration. The regular exhibition opens May 27th and continues at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation through September 4th. For more information, click here.