Case Study in Square Kufic

This is a in-depth look at the design process and reasoning behind a recent project involving Square Kufic, that I hope will be interesting and even helpful to some.

This was a collaboration with Thibaut Degenne, a talented furniture designer and maker based in London, who also learned traditional mosaics in Jordan. Thibaut was bringing the two traditions together into a design concept, starting with a prototype side table. He asked me to have a look at his Square Kufic inscription before he rendered it as a mosaic.

The text is an Arab proverb: ربّ صدفة خير من الف ميعاد (“A chance encounter may benefit more than a thousand trysts.”) This was the original composition:

I should specify that this was composed by his Jordanian partner, a native Arabic speaker but with no background in Kufic. It is a classic example of thinking in round script and imposing a square style over it, rather than thinking in the style of Square Kufic proper. (To be fair, this is what any Arabic speaker not schooled in the script would do.)
As a result, the composition was unsuitable in nearly every respect, as shown below. The crosses show faulty spacing (in this style, spacing and line must be absolutely even), the dashes distprtions, and the yellow pattern used as filler must be discounted, so that all of that space above and below is also problematic.

The use of a third colour, in addition to black and white, is not in itself unacceptable, but it would be an additional layer: it cannot be a filler to make up for bad spacing. The black and white must be able to stand alone without it, which is not the case here. Moreover, there is no rationale behind this pattern: in places it is pseudo script, in others it mirrors the text, and in others it’s just filling blank spaces, and even that not systematically.

We agreed I had better redesign the script, taking into account the following restrictions:

  • The third colour needed to be integrated. In this case, this meant it would have to be a border.
  • I had to stick as close as possible to the existing measurements of the table. Because the composition corresponds to the elevation, and is a square, any increase or decrease in the length of the line would affect not only the width of the table but also its height, which is a serious alteration.
  • The size of the mosaic tiles was also set. I had the option of using smaller tiles, but that might be more of a complication than a help.
  • The depth of the script needed to be as small as possible (including a blank row above and below), because it would determine the thickness of the wood, and the danger here was to make it too bulky and heavy.

With length, depth and unit size relatively set, the grid I had to work with was pretty much defined, with only a little wiggle room. Such restrictions, however, are an intrinsic part of the art of Square Kufic, which was never designed with the freedom of a blank canvas but had to fill a certain area of wall, with tiles or bricks of a certain size. It was therefore an enjoyable challenge to see what could be done in these conditions.

Several possibilities came up, depending on what to prioritize: legibility, narrowness, or good design?

1a. Prioritizing legibility

This is usually completely irrelevant, as SK is not about conveying information, and most of the best historical examples are patently impossible to read, with the text laid out in a spiral so that absurd contortions would be required in order to decipher it. However, people who commission this style today always request a certain degree of legibility, so I try for that as well. This first option, then, was a better rendering of the original design:

  • Legibility: high, thanks to preserving the pointing and not forcing the letters into a band.
  • Depth: 9 units (narrower than original)
  • Design: poor. This is low-grade Kufic, and the border is still a barely disguised filler .

1b. Same, with concessions to design

  • Legibility: medium, as the letters are still unconstrained, but pointing is eliminated.
  • Depth: 9 units
  • Design: slightly better, as the removal of pointing allows ascenders and descenders to create a more pleasing rhythm with the border.

2a. Prioritizing design

  • Legibility: low, as the letters are constrained to form a perfect band, and pointing is eliminated.
  • Depth: 11 units (equal to original)
  • Design: Very good, proper Kufic practice.

2b. Same, with concessions to legibility

  • Legibility: medium, as pointing is restored to the constrained letters. The dotted border was an idea to integrate the pointing seamlessly.
  • Design: Good, only a slight compromise to traditional practice.

3. Prioritizing narrowness

  • Legibility: very poor, as letters are seriously constrained and there’s no pointing.
  • Depth: 9 units but could be as narrow as 5 if the border was removed.
  • Design: Correct but not much visual interest; the only real point of this option would be how narrow it is.

We discussed it and the end result was a variation of 2b, with a continuous rather than dotted border. This made it less distracting, and having the occasional dot break the line, in a regular pattern around the frame, adds life to the rigidity of pure Kufic. The dots also make it reasonably legible to most Arabic speakers.

I assembled the text in a composition that preserved the original arrangement (with blank corners) but interlacing the border:

Thibaut modified it to create a continuous band. This required a small modification at the corners, so he came back to me to double-check that detail.

His modification looked great but it amputated the final dâl of the sentence in order to place the dot, which wasn’t acceptable. Happily, it required very little to be corrected: leave the dâl alone and instead move the dot, either to the corner of the inner border or under the bâ, as shown in my redlined sketch below. I recommended the former solution, to preserve our system of keeping all the dots outside the text band.

This finalized the design. A few months later, I had the pleasure to watch Thibaut putting the mosaic in place, and not long after to “meet” the fully finished table! I hope it gets the attention it deserves and that we can work on more such projects in the future.