On The Funk
“You see, the Funk is a living creature. It's about the size of a medicine ball, but covered in teats. It came from another planet, and landed on Bootsy Collins's house.
Back then Bootsy was just a simple farmer. But he took one look at all of those mauve titties and he lost his mind. He began to milk the Funk. Made himself a Funk shake. Began to feel fizzy inside. He found he could see around corners. Suddenly, he passed out. But when he came to, baby, he was slapping a bass guitar fast and loose like some kind of delirious, funky priest.
Two months later, he was world-famous with his band, Parliament, and everybody wanted a piece of the Funk: Rick Wakeman, even the Bee Gees.
One day, Parliament was traveling on the mothership, fooling around with the Funk, when George Clinton kicked the Funk clean overboard.
That was July the Second, 1979, the Day the Funk died.”
The word ‘Funk’ comes from Latin ‘Fumigare’: to smoke. ‘Funk’ entered the English language in the late 1700’s, but only as a description for things that smell musky. Jazz musicians in early 1900’s New Orleans gave the Funk a new meaning as something deeply felt.
Buddy Bolden, the tragically unremembered and unrecorded ‘inventor of jazz’, wrote a song in 1907 named ‘Funky Butt’, referring to the scenes on the dance floors where his band performed. Eventually an entire musical genre, marked by strong, slow rhythms, and slappy baselines, named itself after the Funk in its honor.
Clearly the Funk is ineffable; hard to describe, yet we can all understand its essence.
We experience our urge to Funk as a joyous, almost mischievous feeling in the lower belly, as much in the visual arts as in music, as I can tell you as a person who has participated in several jam sessions. The Funkocampic cortex, which is the part of our brain which processes Funkiness, produces the hormone Funkamine which drives our desire to Funk. It is significantly stronger in certain people compared to others, and can be trained.
The Funk’s countless contributions to music needn’t be mentioned by me, a person with a limited understanding of music theory and history, on a blog that tries to focus on lettering and design.
Instead, I’d like to talk about what the Funk’s magic funky milk has done to the visual arts, and specifically to letters, because that hasn’t been discussed to a great extent.
Although the Funk has only been named as such for a century, its essence has been around for far longer.
The Egyptians, for one, mixed up their own version of Funk in their hieroglyphic writing system, the oldest of which are an astonishing 5200 years old. The combination of purely abstract marks together with stylized imagery of animals, plants, tools, and body parts, is absolutely wild and totally Funky.
The oldest Assyrian cuneiform alphabets are of similar age as the oldest Egyptian hieroglyphics, and they too seem to emit a degree of Funk, albeit in a more abstract form. To our contemporary eyes, these marks almost look alien, and would not look out of place on the cover of an Earth, Wind & Fire album cover.
The Phoenician alphabet took some time to become Funky. The Greeks, in their virtuous journey to reason, didn’t deem it necessary. When the Romans copied the Greek’s alphabet, they made various modifications, but Funkiness wasn’t one of them.
This is not a criticism, but an observation: Beethoven didn’t need the Funk to write his symphonies, and the Romans didn’t need it to come up with some of the most beautiful letterforms known to man.
However, any lettering or type that doesn’t have a dose of Funk mixed in, will be perceived as formal, official, and serious. These letters are well suited for discussing grave subjects, designating government buildings, honoring the conquests of emperors, forming logos for banks, and so forth. They can be fantastically beautiful, but they will never tickle the Funkocampic cortex.
Although my studies on the subject aren’t complete, I believe the first indication of funk in the Latin alphabet started with the Uncial hand. Developed from the Roman cursive (a day-to-day handwriting), Uncial was a book-hand with more rounded strokes than its predecessors. This was possible due to new, smoother writing surfaces such as parchment and vellum, as opposed to rougher papyrus. Rounded strokes were preferred because they are faster to write, but their prevalence, while on purpose or not, added Funk.
The ‘A’ and ‘Y’ in particular strike me as Funky, as do the rounded ‘E’ and ‘W’. Some letterforms remain Funkless, such as the ‘H’ and ‘T’.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Funk struggled to find it’s corporeal manifestation, but showed up here and there. For centuries, the only literate people where monks, copying manuscript after manuscript in their scriptoriums. The majority of their work focused on minuscules (lowercase calligraphic letters), be it through the decidedly un-Funky Merovingian, Carolingian, or Textura Quadrata hands.
Where the monks did have their chance for self-expression was through illuminated Capital letters.
Many of these Capital letters were stylized and exaggerated Uncial letters, known as Lombardic Capitals. These bad dads often had Funk added to them, both in form and in ornament, as well as strange and Funky illustrations in the margins of the pages, known as ‘Marginalia’.
In the later days of the Medieval era, minuscule hands in Southern Europe too were granted the gift of Funk. Were Northern Europe stuck with the angular Textura Quadrata school of gothic calligraphy, the Mediterraneans added roundness and slant, leading to the rather Funky calligraphic styles of Rotunda and Bastard Secretary.
During the renaissance, the revival of the classics didn’t lead to much Funk, as the classics themselves lacked it. The most funky letterforms to come out of the 15th-16th centuries are the ones that were newly created, rather than copied from the ancients.
Chancery hand, also known as Italic, is a particularly striking example.
Its form was influenced by a desire to write faster: an angled slant more natural to the hand and letterforms condensed to be written in fewer strokes. They trade formality for elegance, and stasis for movement. In a word, Funk.
As human inventiveness expanded exponentially during the years of enlightenment and beyond, so did our endeavors into Funk.
With the percentage of literate populace increasing and the ownership of books becoming a status symbol, printing became more popular than ever.
More type foundries, more typefaces. Lead type was prominent for text, but a new genre of typefaces became widespread too: the display face. At 72pt or larger, wood was used for these chonkers, as lead at this size would be too heavy for convenient use.
As wood type became more popular, it’s variations increased, and by the early 1800’s it became clear that at least a tablespoon of Funk per glyph was required to keep the type commercially viable.
Funk kept growing through the Victorian era, and made an even wilder turn into the 20th century with the highly Funky modernist movements that swept the cultural landscape of each continent.
First Art Nouveau, which produced a rich variation of absurd but highly Funky letterforms, closely followed by it’s streamlined but equally Funked up cousin Art Deco.
The horrors of the second world war briefly put a lid on the Funk-pot, reasonably so, but soon after Funkiness manifested itself in popular culture to new heights.
Inspired by Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and a lot of drugs, the sixties and seventies birthed some Funkalicious babies the likes of which had never been seen before.
Thanks for bearing with me through this brief history of Funky letters, because understanding this helps us comprehend exactly what that je ne sais quoi is that turns a letter from un-Funky to Funky: deviation from the norm, based on an inner desire for joy.
Be it the pleasure of drawing rounder shapes because it feels nice on smooth vellum, be it the Lombardic Capital embellished with a doodle of a little devil, be it all letters written or drawn not with a stern grimace, but with a grin. Funkiness is added to a letter from within our souls.
Funkiness in letters manifests in different forms. Broadly speaking, it is done through the distortion of shapes and changing of the proportions between elements. For instance, long sweeping ascenders and descenders with rounded swashes. A shifting of the weight from vertical to diagonal or horizontal. An unexpected ligature. An unusual serif. A provocative ornament.
Legibility is of course key to any letter: there is only so much abstraction that a letterform can get away with before it simply becomes a useless blob. As must Funkiness in music conform to the laws of sound and musical theory, so too must a Funky letter be recognizable as itself.
The way that the Funk takes over a letter is like a benevolent parasite which modifies and feeds on its host’s body, but simultaneously depends on its survival in order to impart its blessed Funkiness on the world around it. This transfer of Funk can happen because the same joy that goes into a funky thing’s creation is bestowed upon the beholder, as long as said beholder’s Funkocampic cortex is well developed.
Funk did not really die on July the Second, 1979: it was hidden in a shoe box by a scaly man-fish. But more importantly, the Funk within humans lives on. I am glad to see it each day in fellow artists and designers. It’s an integral part of our self-expression, and we should all learn to embrace it.