DEARBORN, Mich. — To say that graphic designers are obsessed with fonts would be a very true statement, but it would also be a little bit like saying architects are obsessed with walls, windows, and roofs. Fonts are the mechanism that gives form to printed language, and their impact is profound, whether one is aware and obsessed with them, or not.
Andy Cruz is undoubtedly obsessed with fonts, having created them for 20-plus years under the auspices of House Industries, a design firm cofounded with Rich Roat in the early 1990s. House Industries: A Type of Learning at the Henry Ford museum showcases House’s reach and the extent to which their fonts have thoroughly permeated an entire cross-section of pop culture.
“We’re all ’80s kids,” said David Dodde, co-owner and designer at House Industries. “We’re not inventing anything, we’re just stealing really well. It’s all about the honesty of the theft. In a way, we’re paying homage.”
A Type of Learning is directly informed by House’s longstanding practice of close collaborations with clients across a variety of media. For us Generation Y-ers, precariously balanced between Generation X and millennials, it will leave your synapses blazing in remembrance of iconic pop culture ephemera: Shag stickers; Rat Fink hot rod kits; the HOUSE33 clothing line that directly referenced California skate culture of the early ’90s; the imagery of artist Chris Cooper, whose iconic “smoking devil” design bears more than a passing resemblance to Cruz himself. Other visitors may instead light up with recognition at the “Neutraface” font collection, a minimalist san serif developed to make street-facing address numbers for custom homes by famed midcentury modern architect Richard Neutra. Still other visitors might experience an eye-opening moment of connection in seeing aspects of their daily culture invisibly shaped by House Industries fonts — for example, the font design for the marquee-style logo of Jimmy Kimmel Live!
This exhibition is expertly crafted and installed with an obsessive eye for detail, but what really makes it a perfect fit is the ways in which it dovetails with the Henry Ford’s overarching collection of cultural artifacts. A trip around the massive museum grounds reveals a seemingly diffuse interest in everything — there are 24,000 objects objects currently on display, including trains, cars, an example of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, the automobile carrying John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated, and many others — to say nothing of the on- and offsite archives that catalogue up to one million objects, including archival materials. A brief talk with some of the curators — who head departments like Domestic Life (Jeanine Head Miller), Communications & Information Technology (Kristen Gallerneaux), and Transportation (Matt Anderson) — reveals the museum’s interest in the intersection of technology and popular culture, and the development and dissemination of invention. It makes a lot of sense for a collection founded on the wealth of arguably the most impactful invention of the modern era: the automobile.
A Type of Learning was organized by Marc Greuther, a curator of Industry & Design and the senior director of Historical Resources at the Henry Ford. Greuther discovered House Industries upon learning about the font they developed for the Eames Office — a clean and minimal type, as one would expect in the service of those legends of modernism and classic simplicity. From there, he developed a long relationship with Cruz and the rest of House, culminating in the exhibition and the launch of a book that catalogs House’s diffuse reach within the design sphere.
Though the show’s punny title, “A Type of Learning,” suggests information design, the exhibition really hinges on drawing some straight-line associations between the House crew’s points of inspiration, demonstrating the “fans first” attitude that has shaped all their aesthetics.
“What I think we’re trying to do … is show the stuff that influenced us, that turned us on to design, form, color — just that aesthetic experience that you just don’t want to lose,” said Cruz. The exhibition begins with the pop culture artifacts of great significance to the House crew, including a Misfits poster, an Evel Kenevil jumpsuit, an old-school LEGO set, and a Tom Servo puppet from Mystery Science Theater 3000. One section chronicles Cruz’s eye for hot rod cars, showing a progression from the classic hot rod that was his father’s passion project and point of inspiration for Cruz as a young man, to Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s futuristic Mysterion show from the Henry Ford collection; in 1997 Cruz began a collaboration with Roth to develop a specialized font for the Rat Fink brand. One of House’s latest automobile projects is the font and custom paint job on the dash display of a 2017 Ford GT supercar. It’s a literal object lesson in Cruz’s evolution from being a fan of pop culture to being a part of it.
House’s story conveys a sense of the invisible reach of design — not only as a vehicle for information and aesthetics, but as a kind of legacy. Design has the capacity to imprint and inspire designers to carry it forward, maintaining the relevance of fonts and their power to carry messages, just like students of philosophy learn and interpret the ideas of their teachers. House manages to establish aesthetic ownership of a hefty slice of popular culture and a reputation for clearly delineated vision, even when they are completely transparent about their influences — a neat trick in a scene where there is no greater crime than hollow derivation.
“You’re trying to communicate with people,” said Dodde, “and people know when you aren’t communicating with them in an honest way.”
House Industries: A Type of Learning continues at the Henry Ford (20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, Mich.) through September 4.