What would Walt Whitman do as a typeface designer? Perhaps the humanist American poet, who sang “O manhood, balanced, florid, and full” in Song of Myself, would invent an alphabet much like the one graphic designer Erik Freer has: the letterforms all spelled out in images of the naked male body.
Freer created the typeface in tribute to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman’s famous (and famously banned) poetry collection. “I wanted to experiment with visually illustrating the then-controversial eroticism of these poems,” he tells Co.Design, “something that would’ve been unacceptable in Whitman’s time.”
One pious reviewer in 1855 called Leaves of Grass “a mass of stupid filth” and accused Whitman of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians," meaning homosexuality. Like Freer, Whitman was a gay man living in Brooklyn, trained in printing—he typeset his own books.
For his senior project at Parsons The New School for Design, Freer, who also studied poetry at The New School, decided to apply anthropomorphic alphabets—in this post-DOMA era—to making an illuminated manuscript of Whitman’s classic collection. His cover typeface alone would have surely caused great offense in the 19th century: Armpit Sans is made entirely from screen-grabs of low-res images of, yes, men’s armpits.
To create his typefaces, Freer studied the Scotch-Roman font of Whitman’s original manuscripts. Then he redrew and overlaid these letters with chopped-up images of nude men—all in Photoshop, a medium Whitman couldn’t have dreamed of when he sang the body electric.
A display font for headings, Heroic Caledonia Men’s, resurrects the idealized bodies of the ancient world: a fallen angel’s roaring marble head is cut in the shape of an L; a scrap of a Da Vinci anatomical drawing merges with a Greek kouros in a D. Freer’s secondary display typeface, Nude Caledonia Men’s, draws from contemporary male body worship: the backside of porn star Jeff Stryker fuses with Bruce Lee’s torso in an N shape; fragments of tattooed pectoral muscles and a Gucci model’s chiseled chin create V’s and I’s.
Freer cites an array of figurative alphabets as reference, such as dance company Pilobolus’s, or Anthon Beeke’s naked ladies alphabet. He says he also looked to the work of Marian Bantjes, Pinar Dimerdag, and Thijs Verbeek for inspiration.
But his typeface series is a new take, fresh in its “intentionally messy, sometimes grotesque” collaging of both ancient-classical and contemporary images, and in its functional aim to illustrate a classic text for a world in which Whitman would have been free to publish lines like, “You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,/And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stripped heart” without risk of violating public statues concerning “obscene literature.”
Go here to see more of Freer’s work.[Photos by: Erik Freer]