In Conversation with Andy Cruz of House Industries
Andy Cruz, founder of House Industries, is a design mastermind—and an incredibly down-to-earth one at that. His new book, The Process is the Inspiration, is a “collection of helpful lessons, stories, and case studies that demonstrate how you can transform obsessive curiosity into personally satisfying and successful work.”
Extending our conversations about curiosity and process post-Unread, The Curiosity Issue (plus Andy being one of our industry heroes), we jumped on the opportunity to sponsor him coming to speak to our community. But before his AIGA Chicago lecture, we spoke with him about building out a successful business, how personal passions can turn professional, and the power of being inquisitive.
One Design: We're curious—what are your "biggest learnings" or takeaways over the years of running a business?
Andy Cruz: The biggest, or the most consistent learnings?
One: Oh—let's hear both.
Andy: When I think of what got us into the design business, it was a genuine interest in creating artwork—and that started for us as little kids who just liked to draw. Unfortunately, the business of and opinions associated with ‘design’ can make things complicated, discouraging, stressful. And the creative usually suffers. We learned that tempering the reality of commerce and putting the art first was where we needed to be consistent.
When I think of our favorite projects, and even some of our most rewarding learning experiences, we did our own thing and didn't sweat the cash or the client's opinion too hard. The work did most of the talking, everyone was happy and it became a compass for the kind of business we would like to do.
One: The mental and emotional hurdle to not sweat those clients' opinions and the cash is probably one of the more challenging parts of that philosophy. How do you engage people in that thought-process and kind of blend the passion and the not sweating those details with delivering something that the client is also going to get behind?
Andy: Having that conversation up front. It's a lot like any relationship—there's some initial attraction because you've done some sort of work in the past that has brought you to a point where you're having a conversation about creating something together. Then, as lame as it sounds, you’ve gotta manage those expectations and start chopping things up. I'm not saying you've gotta have a 50-page contract, but at least have an understanding so people on both sides know what they're getting into.
Some of our most meaningful arrangements are "handshake deals"—but they're built on a solid relationship, and a true collaborative understanding where you are working together as opposed to them hiring you to just be their hands in grinding out their project.
One: Totally. Beyond building solid relationships to then flex your craft and explore new things, how have you been able to learn to extend your passion for type craft into side projects and other collaborations?
Andy: It's just one of the cool side effects of having a genuine interest in the work. A lot of that stuff organically grew out of supporting our "design habit," for lack of a better term. We would be working on fonts and realize, 'Hey, we've got to promote this stuff. We could sell it like everyone else does or we could have more fun and get into trouble by doing things that are not traditionally paired with marketing fonts,' be it ridiculous packaging, furniture, textiles or installations.
One: Right. Spinning off of that, how would you say your personal passions and your team's personal passions have influenced your collective craft?
Andy: A lot of our personal interests—those feelings that we would absorb from something like music, cars, architecture, what have you—those are things that fueled our interest in design. I didn't attend a formal art college. I came in through the "commercial art” door at a vo-tech high school. It helped me pair traditional skills with design that struck an honest chord with me—and as a teenager, I needed to know more. I remember wanting to understand what went into creating the illustration on a Santa Cruz skateboard and then trying to figure out why I liked it so much.
At 13, I had no academic interest in what post-modernism really meant, but when I saw Peter Saville’s work I had a half-assed reason to explore these other worlds. One of the bits I show in my lecture is some old Bauhaus t-shirt that I had. It's funny because I pair it with some of the architecture stuff we did. Again, I had no fucking idea what the real Bauhaus was. I dug the band, they had a cool song about Bela Lugosi, but that type on my t-shirt eventually led me to the Herbert Bayer's Universal Alphabet and years later I’m saying, 'holy shit, Peter Murphy and the guys were onto something here.' Again, that was just this little glimpse into a much bigger thing that would inspire and influence me in other ways.
One: All of those moments—being so drawn to a subject and not necessarily having a full understanding of what it was or where it came from—fall in line with this idea of being inherently curious. We've been exploring what that means as of late—constantly asking questions, learning new things, and taking things that we inherently are drawn to and explore 'why?' Is there anything that you've been particularly curious about lately? Something new or a new found passion that you've been exploring?
Andy: Just the idea of curiosity and being a lifelong learner—that's something that we didn't really try to codify until our publisher asked, 'can you explain where a lot of these ideas are coming from? What's the drive?' Of course, we get into that in the book, but then when you flash-forward to today, the drive and my current point of interest is leaning towards folk art, particularly in Japan. That's the kind of stuff that I go out of my way for these days.
Like the punk rock stuff, I’ll see hints of it from time to time. Especially when we were doing some of the Eames and Alexander Girard House Industries stuff. When you start to look at what your favorite artists were influenced by, you realize that the wells of inspiration are fairly common.
One: How would you say curiosity informs your personal process, and then House's process at large? Would you say that everyone has that shared sense of curiosity?
Andy: I think that's part of the gravitational pull of House—and even those customers that have supported us for so many years. That could sound a little loud or selfish, but I realize that being selfish and wanting to entertain or satisfy my own curiosity is what leads to some of our best work. You realize that others share the same interests and what we create from it can connect people. Be it another designer using a font that was inspired by lettering we found in an esoteric subculture or the person that reads that font in the wild. The influence we try to bake into those letterforms has the power to trigger memories and hopefully, curiosity.
Make sure to pick up a copy of Andy’s book The Process Of Inspiration and keep your eyes peeled for Andy Cruz of House Industries: The Process is the Inspiration event coverage on AIGA Chicago’s social channels.