Daily Features

Book Builder: A Conversation with Irma Boom

Amsterdam-based book designer Irma Boom talks about book-making and her life in design

By Angela Riechers, Superscript January 27, 2014

Dutch-born Irma Boom is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost book designers, and is the youngest person ever to receive the prestigious Gutenberg Prize for a body of work. Her books are distinguished by her experimental approach to formats and a willingness to take design risks; she incorporates the often-overlooked edges of books into the overall design, is happy to challenge the assumption that a lengthy book requires an index or individual page numbers, and has produced an all-white book for Chanel that relies on embossing rather than ink to convey the content. Over 50 of her titles are included in the permanent collection at MoMA, in the Collection of the Centre Pompidou, and in The Irma Boom Archive at the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam.

Irma Boom. Photo: Theo Krijgsman

Her recent work beyond books includes the so-called “Knot & Grid” curtain for the renovation of the North Delegates’ Lounge at the United Nations Headquarters; a textile collection produced by Knoll; and a new logo and visual identity for the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Boom designs her books in an atypical process closer to architecture than graphic design, building one or more small-scale 3D models while she works to help visualize the finished project. For a 2013 retrospective at the Institut Néerlandais in Paris, Boom designed and installed the exhibition herself. The exhibition catalogue includes an introduction by architect Rem Koolhaas and text by Mathieu Lommen, conservator of the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam, plus a statement about books from Boom. The catalogue was issued in two sizes: mini (1.5 x 2 inches), which weighs in at under 2 ounces, and XXL (13.5 x 18 inches), at nearly 16 pounds. The mini is just about 8/1000th the weight of the XXL, but the content is identical.

Just before a conversation she took part in with Design Matters host Debbie Millman in New York on Wednesday evening, January 29—an event presented by AIGA/NY and Designers & Books—Boom answered some questions from Angela Riechers about her work and life.

James Jennifer Georgina, 2010, by Jennifer Butler, “a story in postcards” designed by Irma Boom. Photo: Courtesy of Irma Boom


Angela Riechers: A miniature catalogue of your work, Irma Boom: Biography in Books, was issued in conjunction with your retrospective exhibition in Amsterdam in 2010. For the 2013 Paris show, an updated, slightly larger edition called Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book was produced. The new catalogue has 800 pages—96 more than its predecessor—and has expanded in its length and width, too. Why the name and size change?

The Book

Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book Irma Boom
Rem Koolhaas
Mathieu Lommen

Irma Boom: For the Amsterdam exhibition, which was my first retrospective, I wrote a text for every book. Making books is my work and my life, and telling one story per book was my way to reveal things about the project you would not get from an ordinary caption. For the Paris show, I wanted to emphasize how, for me, making books is about building them. So the two titles reflect those two slightly different viewpoints over time. I am enormously interested in the scale and size of the book; it is a 3D object and like a building, size matters. My plan is that every time the books are reissued, the mini will grow 3 percent and the XXL will decrease 3 percent per year. By the time I become 80 I will have a normal-size book!

XXL and mini versions of Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book, 2013 (Lecturis)

AR: Why do you construct the small book models before tackling the full-sized versions?
IB: The small books allow me to easily check the structure of the book—the distribution of text and images—because the small format is handier to deal with. I always show the models to the people who commission me and they are completely seduced, but then they never want to make a small book as a finished product. For my own show it was clear that I needed to produce the mini book. The opportunity was irresistible. But I am not a small book fetishist—the models are working tools for me.

AR: How much planning precedes your first physical step as you start a new book? And how do you adapt and revise the design as you go along?

Installation view from the exhibition “Irma Boom: L’architecture du livre,” Institut Néerlandais, Paris, September 18–December 15, 2013. Photo: John Kudos

IB: In most cases, I am the editor of the book as well as the designer. I spend quite some time on the content and when I have developed a concept, an argument, then I start to think about the physical presence. Making the book models by hand is a design tool for me; it’s a necessity to make them as the book is in development. The process is like an architect making scale models of buildings. Once I’ve finished the models, I start to work on the design. I build the design in the book, not on the computer screen.

The 2,136-page SHV Think Book 1996–1896, commissioned by SHV Holdings (Utrecht), designed by Irma Boom, 1996. Photo: Courtesy of Irma Boom 

Interior pages from SHV Think Book 1996–1896, 1996. Photo: courtesy of Irma Boom

AR: Knoll approached you to design a textile collection based on two of your books: Colour (Kleur) Based on Art, 2005, and Colour Based on Nature, 2012. How did you choose the specific patterns to produce as fabrics? Was there a lot of back and forth with Knoll?

Sherman upholstery fabric, from “Stripes,“ 2013, a collection of upholstery, drapery and wall coverings designed by Irma Boom for KnollTextiles. Photo: ©Knoll

IB: Dorothy Cosonas of Knoll and I discussed every detail, but Knoll led the process. We had a lot to work with: each book uses 80 examples, chosen either from artworks from five centuries or from UNESCO natural World Heritage sites to analyze, translate, and diagram colors. This collaboration was the first time that a concept taken from a book of mine was turned into textiles.

AR: Your book No. 5 Culture Chanel, created to accompany Chanel’s 2013 exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, won the prestigious Dutch Design Award that year. You describe the project in these words: “No ink! The book is totally embossed, totally white in a black box...The content comes from the world of Mlle. Chanel: poetry, mystery, noir et blanc, music, the modern, the invisible, simplicity, astrology, tarot cards, superstition, flowers, numerology, the ephemeral. The wish to create something almost nonexistent yet very present....” What was it like working with Chanel?

Front of box for No. 5 Culture Chanel, 2013, designed by Irma Boom. Photo: Courtesy of Irma Boom

Interior pages from No. 5 Culture Chanel, 2013. Photo courtesy of Irma Boom

IB: The company was great to work with. They gave me carte blanche to make a book about the world of Mlle. Chanel, a world in which it was possible to create Chanel No. 5—the first modern, avant-garde perfume with its brilliant bottle and packaging and name.

AR: The Chanel page in your mini catalogue is embossed—that’s quite a feat of manufacturing and engineering. Was it hard to achieve the result you wanted?
IB: The embossing is flatter in the mini catalogue than it is in the Chanel book, because the production techniques were very different for these two books. But I was very pleased we were able to do it in the mini.

AR: As a designer you are especially fearless about taking risks. Your 1987 and 1988 stamp yearbooks for the Dutch Postal and Telecommunications Service are perfect examples: instead of sticking to the philatelic tradition of showing neatly grouped stamps accompanied by precise descriptions, you broke from expectations by including your sketches, working drawings and inspirations; you typeset the text in squared-off justified blocks without any hyphens; and you used a Japanese bookbinding style where the pages are closed in front and inside printed on both sides.

The books generated hate mail and negative criticism when they were first published—they were even returned by some of the stamp collectors who bought them. In time, though, the yearbooks won many awards because the design challenged popular notions of what a stamp compilation book should look like. The design was once referred to as a “brilliant failure.” What is your reaction to that assessment?

IB: You don’t start out a project to create a failure or success. I think it is very good to be unafraid to create something new or different. If you experiment, research and walk paths others don’t dare to take, the result can be good or bad. But what is good and what is bad? Twenty-five years later the stamp book gets a lot of respect, and is now recognized as a revolution in book design. You cannot anticipate these things.

A colleague at the Government Publishing and Printing Office did not like my design for the stamp books, even though all the others in the jury did, so when he wrote the jury report his revenge was to call it a brilliant failure. And it seemed to him, based on his own values and ideas about book design, that it truly was this brilliant failure. I respect a critique like that and still think about it. In retrospect, those books represent an honest naiveté and courage. It is good for me to look back at them now and again.

Irma Boom at age four. Photo: courtesy of Irma Boom

AR: What books in your library are most important and meaningful to you?
IB: I have a small collection of 17th-century books, and I love to go to libraries to see other examples of very old books. I realize that everything you think you have invented has already been done—most of the time in a much better way.

AR: You studied painting in art school. Do you have any regrets at not becoming a painter?
IB: Although my main inspirations are artists such as Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin, from the time I met Abe Kuipers, a great teacher who taught me about books, I knew what I wanted to do. He gave the most amazing background information about the books he brought to class as examples for discussion.

AR: With your interest in structures, did you ever consider becoming an architect?
IB: My mother tried to push me in that direction, but I am very happy doing what I am doing now: building books.


“Boom: A Conversation with Irma Boom & Debbie Millman,” will take place on Wednesday, January 29, 6:30–8:30 PM at Parsons The New School for Design, New York. The event is presented by AIGA/NY and Designers & Books and will be followed by a book signing for Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book and a reception. For further details, click here.

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