Boom and her books

Whether big, small, fat or thing, the publications created by Dutch designer Irma Boom are seldom less than extraordinary. Eliza Williams meets her

These are troubled times for book lovers. With the likes of the Kindle and the iPad making it easy to carry around hundreds of titles, the market for printed books is shrinking, reflected in the closure of high street bookshops across the world. Recent reports suggest that even Ikea has stuck the knife in, by introducing a new, deeper version of its ubiquitous Billy bookcase to reflect its changing use from a book storage device to a display case for ornaments.

Yet for fans of the medium, a book is not solely a conduit for knowledge or stories, it offers an experience in itself. In the right circumstances, design and materials can even conspire to elevate a book into an art object. Certain designers understand this deeply, and create books that clearly demonstrate how print continues to be relevant within our digital world, and can in turn still prove commercially successful.

A pioneer of this philosophy is Dutch designer Irma Boom. Boom is behind some of the most enticing books in recent times, from her celebrated monograph of the work of ‘fibre artist’ Sheila Hicks to a number of collaborations with Rem Koolhaas, including the recent Project Japan book.

With many of her designs in the collection at MoMA in New York, Boom has amply proven how a contemporary book can be revered as an art object, yet her books are never about style over substance. Instead she creates publications that intrinsically reflect the information held within them, using design to enhance the reader’s understanding of the content, while also to create an object of beauty.

Boom first discovered the potential of book design while at art school. She had enrolled to study painting, but after three years she stumbled upon a class on book design and was drawn in. Painting was immediately left behind. “Immediately,” she stresses. “I never touched a brush again. Isn’t that crazy? But maybe for me becoming a painter was my limited view: I had no idea what else was in the world.

“From painting I suddenly went to Swiss typography,” she continues. “I was totally obsessed by Swiss typography, I loved it. I thought I was this free and liberal girl but I wasn’t. It was totally the opposite.”

The music of chance

Talking to Boom, it is clear that serendipity, coupled with a rare determination, has played a recurring role in her design career. Another chance event led to an internship at the office that would prove pivotal in Boom’s early development. This was 1980s Holland, so when initially looking for an internship Boom naturally gravitated towards Total Design. But not everything worked out as planned. “When they saw my work, they looked at the typography, but I didn’t stick to Helvetica,” she remembers. “I mixed Helvetica with Akzidenz-Grotesk, with Gill Sans … I did a design for a dictionary, and dedicated each description of a word a different typeface. So it looked really a bit messy, but when they saw that they said ‘well, is that something you do often, mixing typefaces?’ And I said, ‘of course, I do it all the time’. I thought they liked it! Then they said, ‘well, then we cannot have you here, you have to go somewhere else. We like strict typography and not these experiments.’ It was a total disaster. I was so sad.”

After this disappointment, her tutor gave Boom an internship at the graphic design department of the government printing office in The Hague, where he was head. A reluctant move on her part, after three months she moved to Studio Dumbar where she interned for a further six months. Yet, after a hugely successful graduate show, which led to many job offers, she was drawn back to the government office.

“I couldn’t choose what to do, so I thought, let’s go back to the government printing and publishing office,” she says. “I went to where I hated! But at least I immediately became a designer, not an assistant designer. “The government printing office was then owned by the state,” she continues. “So you became a civil servant basically. They had a design department, it was all these guys with beards. For me, it was all these old people who worked there. There were only three or four young people.”

Boom reacted against the conventional and somewhat stuffy mood of the office by working long hours, and accepting any job asked of her. She began to be successful, which created tensions with her colleagues, though in many ways this unpleasantness seems to have spurred her on. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I cannot stand authority,” she says. “I’m really very allergic to somebody who tells me what to do.… I was really stubborn. For the people there, I’m not sure if I was a nice girl, they were a bit afraid.”

Boom’s designs caught the attention of Ootje Oxenaar, the designer of the much-loved Dutch banknotes (in circulation from 1964–88, see CR November) and then head of the Department of Aesthetic Development at the Dutch Postal and Telecommunications Service (PTT). Oxenaar was responsible for choosing a designer to create the annual ‘stamp book’ for the PTT, which collated all the stamps created that year. It was a hugely prestigious commission, associated with a rich heritage of design: previous titles had been created by Wim Crouwel, Karl Maartens and Gert Dumbar. After seeing her work, Oxenaar gave the assignment for both the 1987 and 1988 stamps (which were to appear as one book) to Boom.

She was 28 at the time, and if the professional jealousy from her colleagues was bad before, it increased dramatically with the PTT’s announcement. “A few people left the office,” Boom remembers. She was initially intimidated by the project, but her approach was audacious from the outset: she was keen to break with the past design approaches that she saw repeated in the previous books. She also responded deeply to the material contained within the book, though this latter impulse would, in this instance, prove dangerous.
Boom was less than impressed by the stamps that had been produced over the two years, and became curious to explore what had inspired them. This became the concept for the book: she asked her collaborator on the title, art historian Paul Hefting, to write an essay exploring inspiration sources and copyright, and set about researching additional imagery herself. This included finding examples of pictures that looked similar to those in the stamps to place alongside them, highlighting possible ‘influences’ on the designs. Boom worked virtually alone on the project, with only Hefting aware of her plans, and he offered no warning that the resulting book may prove controversial.

“He didn’t say anything to me,” she says now. “At the time I was a really stupid girl, I had no idea that if you put these images together, somebody would get angry. I would not dare to do it these days…. Paul Hefting was also a bit of an enfant terrible. He even encouraged me.”

The resulting book was experimental in its approach, both in its unusual and somewhat irreverent use of the content, but also in its design, which included deliberately lo-fi techniques, such as photocopied images. Its launch was a much-anticipated event, coinciding with an exhibition of the stamps. “Lots of people came,” says Boom, “and when they saw the book, everybody got so angry. First of all they thought the design was lousy, then they started to see the images…. I got so much hate mail. But on the other hand, some people thought it was great.

So suddenly I had friends and enemies, because of that book.”

Despite the trauma it caused for Boom, the book went on to be an unparalleled success, picking up numerous awards. “When I think of it in retrospect, it was a huge success,” Boom admits. “But at the time I didn’t feel like that because I got so much trouble. For ten years after I hardly showed it. It’s 23 years later now, and I love it! I see the qualities now, but I didn’t see that in the beginning, not at all…. For me what is also interesting in retrospect is what an effect a book can have! An enormous effect.”

Boom left the government not long after the publication of the stamp book, and after contemplating setting up in partnership with Anthon Beeke, she began working for herself. Certain long-term design collaborations with individuals and institutions began around this time, including Boom’s association with entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, alongside whom she was to make one of her most significant books.

An epic undertaking

The two met when Boom was still working at the government office and, impressed by her work on a project he had sponsored, van Vlissingen commissioned her to create a book to celebrate his 50th birthday. When this too proved successful, he proposed a far more expansive project, to celebrate the centenary of SHV (the Coal Trade Association), of which he was CEO. The anniversary was to be in five years time, and Boom approached it almost as a kind of design PhD. She worked alongside the art historian Johan Pijnappel on the project, and the two moved into the SHV offices, to immerse themselves fully.

The brief was extraordinarily loose and enticing. “What he told us was to make something unusual,” says Boom. “Which of course is a crazy question, it’s like saying, ‘make a prize-winning book’. It’s impossible. We could have made a film or anything: we first thought of a film, or a DVD, or something hip.” But the resulting work needed to last, which led the duo back to the idea of a book. “If we had made a DVD, you couldn’t play it now, you’d have to convert it. The question was to make something for the next 500 years, so we made a book on very good paper – my own recipe! – and using very good glue. Everything about the book is made to last for a long time.”

Boom and Pijnappel decided to use the project to make an archive of the company, as no such record existed. They collated material, including letters and documents – nothing was kept hidden from them – and this became the substance of an enormous, 2,136-page publication tracking the history of the company. It required both a physical and mental commitment to complete on time. “I weighed 60kg when I started, and I think I was 87kg [at the end],” says Boom. “We changed completely as people. Totally.” By the end, they were living permanently in the office. “Six hours a day in the beginning was fine,” Boom continues. “I think for the first three years we did that. Then at some point we started to work seven, eight, nine hours … in the end we worked 24 hours, we didn’t go home anymore. I was sleeping on the computer, and I was tired. But we wanted to do it.”

With this level of devotion to a project, it is not surprising that so many of Boom’s books are unique. For her, the decision to undertake a project is not based upon money, but instead on whether it is worth her commitment. “If I accept a commission, I only think in terms of time,” she says. “Time is very precious. If you do a commission, you spend time with a person, because it’s a collaboration. So it better be something interesting and valuable, or a learning process.”

Freedom, trust and time

From the SHV project, Boom learnt that the best projects result from equally committed clients. “From that point on, freedom and trust became the conditions to work together with somebody,” says Boom. “And time. That’s what van Vlissingen gave us: freedom, trust and time. That’s extremely rare.”

Boom inspires deep respect from those she collaborates with. Unlike the common perception of a book designer, who usually comes in towards the end of a project to help collate information already gathered, Boom’s books are created in complete partnership with the author and commissioners. “I think what is particularly unique is that she has the brain of an editor and the talent of a graphic designer,” says Rem Koolhaas of working with Boom. “So therefore she really is much more than a graphic designer, she is somebody who has an enormous sense of content as well.

“We really work together, from the very beginning,” he continues, “and she criticises the whole conception of the book. She is totally capable of identifying what is wrong, and then we change it. She also lets me have a large say on the typography etc … so it’s a very nice collaboration. There’s no demarcation between our professional abilities, so to speak.”

Describing her work as a whole, Boom says, “it’s highly structured, and within the structure there’s lots of chaos. I think that’s where I am the designer.” Occasionally, this chaos threatens to spill out of control, and Boom enjoys telling the story of once being fired from a job. Surprisingly, this turns out to be from the Sheila Hicks monograph, one of her most successful projects.

The book had a long gestation period, beginning with an approach made to Boom directly by Hicks, before being tied into an exhibition of Hicks’ work at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, with a commitment from Yale Press to publish. Reflecting on what caused the crisis, Boom speculates on the part her working methods played. “I’ve very autonomous,” she says. “I do everything myself. I design the books, I do all the production, I do everything, to get it right. I don’t want to have any in-between – where I tell the publisher I want to do this, and the publisher tells the printer. I don’t work like that, it’s always a big mistake, you have to have direct contact. Maybe it was something there….”
Picking up the story, Bard curator and editor Nina Stritzler-Levine, the person behind the ‘firing’ (though she winces at this description), continues: “I was under an enormous amount of pressure to work on this project. We had very little time, there was not a clear vision of how it was going to get finished. Over the weekend, I came in to review all the page proofs with Irma, and when I saw them, I couldn’t figure out how the project could ever happen. They were so bad, the quality of printing was so bad.”

Draconian decision

Stritzler-Levine decided to make the “draconian decision”. Boom was indignant. “In Holland you have arguments about something, but you don’t fire the designer,” she says now. “The whole idea of firing somebody, that’s really American for me. So Nina fired me, and I told her ‘whatever you decide, I’ll continue working on this book’. Because I’d worked already for four years on it.”

This unorthodox response to the rejection was successful: Boom simply continued sending ideas and the project carried on with no more talk of termination. She now sees the whole event as an important lesson for her work as a whole. “I thought I better do this very, very good,” she says. “She gave me the impulse I needed…. It was a big lesson to learn: to be even more sharp.”

Stritzler-Levine agrees that the crisis was the catalyst for the stunning publication that resulted from the project. “Eventually I realised that the risks I was taking far outweighed the challenges,” she says. “Irma worked very closely with the printer and they ended up being fantastic, and the whole thing, between all parties, was not only amicable but creatively quite extraordinary.” Tellingly, the two have gone on to collaborate on other books since, and Boom describes Stritzler-Levine as “one of my best friends now”.

In contrast to the prevailing mood, Boom sees little to be perturbed about by the arrival of the Kindle, the iPad or any of their electronic rivals. “I’m very happy that I’m a designer at this moment,” she says. “And I’m very happy with the Kindle and the iPad, very happy.
“I think there are too many books,” she continues. “If you make a book, if you use paper and all that stuff, you better make a good book. Also a book that cannot be replaced by the Kindle or the PDF – I think the SHV book, on a Kindle, is nothing. You need the manifestation of the book. Or Sheila Hicks on the Kindle or iPad? Forget about it. So for me, it’s super, it’s very good that the technology is so far along. I can now tell people if [a project] is not so interesting … make a PDF! Put it on the Kindle.”

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