Before getting down to business, Roat took us back to the humble beginnings of two friends who decided to start a design company in 1993. Tired of client work, they applied the thinking of “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” and printed mailers that they would send out to designers they liked in the hope that someone would write back to buy one of their fonts.
The rest, as they say, is history and he dives into showcasing projects for the Eames family, collaborating with Hasami porcelain in Japan and the incredible body of work that House Industries has produced over the past 25 years. There is so much character, humour and personality in their work that it would be hard for anyone, young or old, not to enjoy it.
The work of House Industries always has such character and humour in it. Do you intentionally add this or does it just happen by itself?
We learned really early on, when we were watching Mystery Science Theatre, that nothing is above getting laughed at so we try to get humour into everything. I think Ed Roth taught us that. His stuff was pretty crazy to start off with and he would put little spikets off the bottom of his illustration, drips coming out of it and things like that. Angelo, Andy’s dad, when he built that 32-4 that I showed a couple times in the talk, he put a wind up thing in the rear axel so you really have to look for it. I said “Angelo, what’s that key for?” and he says “it’s just for fun”. If you can’t laugh and have a lot of fun then whats the point?
People always say as they climb the ladder within an agency that they gradually design less. Was this the case for you?
I was always pretty dangerous as a designer and I think I touched on that at the beginning of the talk. When we found people that were better than us, we let them do their job. When I met Andy and the reason we got along really well is because I could immediately see that he could compose things better visually than I could. I always deferred to him visually and I think that worked out really well for us. Andy really took a step back when Bondé came on. She got to the point were she was able to finish Andy’s sentences and be willing to argue with him so he’s given her a lot of rope but I think he’s still the visual nerve centre. Andy and I were making fonts and then we met Ken and there were just no reason for us to make fonts anymore. There was a reason but we just thought “this guy is too good, there’s no way we should be making fonts when this guy is sitting there”. I run the business but I also empty trash cans, I merch up our little gallery store and I do a ton of writing. I did a lot of writing for the book and that’s sort of what my role transitioned to.
What’s your relationship with JJ Abrams who wrote the foreword to the book?
We’ve known JJ since the first book. When we did the book in 2004, he somehow got a copy of it and he just called us one day and started talking. “My name is JJ Abrams, I love this book, I’m buying it for all my employees and I’m a fan”. I don’t know what he saw but he made some sort of analogy to what he did as a director and so we kept up the relationship. We haven’t done any work together but he’s the guy who introduced us to Jimmy Kimmel because they were friends and must’ve told him to get in touch with us. It’s just always been this nice little relationship that we’ve had, just a friend. You run into people that understand what you do and understand little bit so we like him because he picks up on all the little things that nobody else does. The one thing he picked up on in one of the videos was Andy pushing a block with the camera lens and that total geeked him out. It was just little things like that. If you read the foreword, he talks all about magic and he says that thing with magic is that you have to learn the trick and sometimes when you do, it ruins it. He said when he read the [House Industries] book he was worried it would ruin it but he said it made it even better now that he knew how the process worked.
We read online that you volunteer as a fireman. Is this still the case?
Yeah, I got pretty badly injured in an accident about a year ago so I haven’t been very active but I still do a duty crew once a week and I’m an emergency medical technician. We live in this little village and there’s a volunteer fire company. It was a September 11th decision and the station has this siren and it’s right near my house and it’s really loud. It woke me up at night and that was a sort of call to action that I couldn’t avoid. Sometimes I wish I never did it because I’ve seen things and done things that I’d probably be better off if I didn’t see but it feels pretty good to be part of the community.
From what we saw, the exhibition looks so accessible to everyone.
That’s what we tried to do. We started doing it with the book by trying to dumb it down. We try not to use design lingo, we try not to use technical terms and one of the descriptions that we used was an off-beat self-help book. Who cares if you don’t like graphic design? I remember when they first built the Apple stores in the States and in the flagship locations they would put a theatre in and I think most of them have taken these out but they used to do presentations in those spaces. We used to message the store manager in LA or wherever and ask if we could go in and do a design lecture. We’d send invitations out, folk would turn up and we’d do a lecture. We’d go there and do a 40 minute dog and pony show and we’d be walking away and a guy would say: “I don’t know anything about graphic design, I was just getting my iPod fixed, but that was cool as shit.” That always affected me to try and make that cross over because there’s a message and things happening here that are useful to more people than just designers. That’s what we tried to do with the exhibit too. We tried to make it so you didn’t have to read a card, you could just look and something and draw the parallel or follow the thread. I wish there was a way I could grab every 10th kid that came in and ask them to fill out a survey.
Do you think you’ll be a designer forever?
I probably will, I don’t know what else I’m gonna do. I’m 52 so I’m probably too old to be getting a new job. I’ve been running this company with Andy for half my life so I don’t know anything else. I think I could maybe make a living as writer because I don’t have the confidence anymore as a designer and I was never really good at type design. I was never really trained to do that stuff anyway. I don’t know what’d it do if I didn’t have House Industries so I hope it sticks around.
The process really is the inspiration for this team. Keep making, keep sketching, keep creating until you’ve exhausted all of the options and you’ve struck gold. We live in a time where things are precious and we need them to be perfect. Ignore that. Get your hands dirty, both literally and figuratively because success doesn’t come to those who wait for it, you gotta go get it.