Irma Boom on standing up for yourself, even in the face of controversy
For this, the first In Conversation of a new series, we sit down with Irma Boom in her extraordinary studio and home in Amsterdam to talk about fighting your corner, researching in the Vatican, and the ongoing value of the book.
There are few designers working today who can claim to have the legacy that Irma Boom has. Born in the Netherlands, and still based in Amsterdam today, Boom has practiced for over 30 years under the moniker Irma Boom Office, producing hundreds of books – over 300, in fact.
Boom’s books are not your average paperbacks, but they aren’t coffee table books either. They are objects of use, made for the many – likened by her to “social housing” – and they wholly embody whatever concept or topic they tackle. Take, for example, her renowned design for artist Sheila Hicks in which the edges of the pages are soaked and sawed in order to echo the edges of Hicks’ woven artworks. Weaving as Metaphor has had five print runs to date, an incredible and often unachievable feat for a book of this nature.
Sometimes Boom does make “villas”, however, and her book Chanel: Livre D'Artistes is a testament to that. The book famously features no ink as all of its content is either debossed or embossed – in PDF form, the book would appear to be full of blank, white pages. It’s for designs such as these that Boom is now collected by MoMA, Centre Pompidou and several other institutions of note around the world, and has received several prestigious awards. In 2014, she was granted 100,000 euros after winning the Dutch state prize for the arts, a sum she now puts towards collecting rare and antique books for the library situated above her studio.
Boom runs her practice from a beautiful building close to the Vondelpark in Amsterdam. It stands out on a long street of typical Dutch neo-Renaissance brick houses – a juxtaposition to its neighbours in glass, steel and basalt. The space was designed by architect Barend Koolhaas and Boom shares it with her partner, gallerist Julius Vermeulen. Designed as one entity, the building houses Boom’s studio on the ground floor and Vermeulen’s gallery Eenwerk above it, and the pair also lives there. And it’s here, in this remarkable building, that I sat down with Boom on a rainy Amsterdam morning.
INT As a designer, you’ve built up a reputation for creating beautifully tactile books. Have you always been interested in objects?
IB No, no! Actually, when I was applying to art school, I wanted to become a painter. Books were not the first love at all. My parents weren’t really keen on me becoming a painter though and so my mother directed me towards the applied arts and I applied to Arnhem School of Art, a random art school, where actually Julius’ [Vermeulen, Irma’s partner] father Jan Vermeulen was working. And he was the one to interview me! It’s the only time I ever met him in my life because he died.
INT And how did that interview go? Did you impress him?
IBWell, when he saw my work, he said: “You belong to the fine art department.” So I didn’t go to the Arnhem Art School, I went to the AKI Academy of Art and Design which was a totally radical and crazy school, famous for art but also applied arts.
INT You ended up studying graphic design there, sort of by accident, I believe?
IBI did art for a few years but realised I wasn’t so good at painting – it was more of a romantic idea. And I was wandering through the school at one point, and I met this teacher who came every week to the school with two suitcases full of books, and he would talk about the books – the design but also the content. When I entered his room, he was talking about two books in particular – one of them had been designed by Julius’ father – and he explained that the design of the book was very appropriate; he explained the quality and what the typographic treatment meant, he looked not only at the inside of the book, but also the outside of the book and suddenly I thought, “That’s what I should do.”
“If I were to compare myself to an architect, I make social housing. Sometimes I’ll make a villa but that’s really rare.”Irma Boom
INT Julius was telling me before he helped his father with some of his book covers.
IB Yeah! He worked on Horrible Tango with him, and isn’t that just amazing that then we two met?
INT You couldn’t make it up – that you ended up with the son of the person who inspired your career! Where did you finally meet?
IB Well, after art school I started to work in The Hague at the Government Publishing and Printing Office, in the design department, and in one of the last years I was there, Julius was too. I immediately fell in love with him – he was this very cute, nice boy. His surname is Vermeulen, which is sort of a common name, so I didn’t think anything of it. At some point, I asked, after I’d already fallen in love with him, “Are you related to Jan Vermeulen?” And he said, “That’s my father!” From that moment on, I thought, “OK, I have to keep this guy!”
INT And how did you get the job at the Government Publishing and Printing Office?
IB The boss at the design department of the Printing Office was my teacher. And I was always a hard worker, both as a painter and as a designer, and I discovered the work of Wim Crouwel and Total Design. I was so into his whole system of typography, I loved it. So when I had to do an internship as part of my undergraduate, I applied to Total Design – and they rejected me.
INT That must have been so disappointing as a student!
IB It was a disaster. I didn’t actually meet Wim Crouwel there, I met two employees of the design team. Wim actually said later in an interview that he really regretted not seeing me himself. But anyway, the two people rejected me because I used all kinds of sans serif typefaces. I gave every typeface a meaning and made a typographic proposal for a dictionary. I used Gill for that, Univers is for this... And these girls who interviewed me said, “Do you do that often, mixing typefaces?” And I thought they liked it, so I said yes! And then they said, “Well, if you do that we cannot hire you.” I was in tears.
INT How old were you at that point?
IB I was 19 or so.
INT I think I would have cried too.
IB Yeah. I thought it was so horrible! I told my teacher, and the teacher said, “They didn’t hire you? Unbelievable! Come to the place where I work instead.” So I became an intern at the Printing and Publishing Office, before interning at Studio Dumbar. In those days, it was incredibly famous but it was also tiny, and very artistic. And I loved the way they worked.
After the final show of my degree, I was offered five jobs.
INT Wow! Really?
IB Yeah, at the time, I just thought that was how it works! You simply get jobs! But now I think, how amazing…
So I was conflicted about what to do next. I asked a lot of people for advice and everybody told me I had to go to the Publishing Office because it’s big and I would learn a lot – and I did learn a lot.
INT What skills do you think you took away from that job?
IB I had come from an art school which was totally crazy so it was good for me to see another world. I was given loads of freedom there, I immediately became a designer – not a junior designer – I was a designer.
Art school had been about personal development and you learnt to think in a conceptual way – the making was not that interesting, it was the thinking that was interesting. At the Publishing Office is where I learnt how to actually do it, how to materialise it and put that thinking into practice. I was no good at it when I started, but I learnt in the flow of all the people how to do things – and how to make a book, which was what I was interested in.
INT What was your role among such a large team?
IB We were given great jobs there. But because I didn’t know that much I took on the jobs nobody else wanted. I realised if I did those jobs, nobody was going to be looking at me and realising I didn’t know anything! Intuitively or instinctively, that was a good decision because I could experiment. I could do what I wanted because really no one looked at anything I did. It was like, “Oh, you've done it? OK, it’s fine.”
In retrospect, it was the best thing for me that I was put in this whole group of people but I could work there and be almost totally invisible. I was so shy, I also had long hair and I was always lurking behind it.
INT It also seems like your time at the Printing Office, where you were designing for lots of people, for the masses, had an impact on how you think about design today – how it should be democratic.
IB Yeah, it’s what I like about making books, it’s a democratic medium. Whatever I make, even if the print run is only 1,000 like Chanel: Livre D’Artistes, what you produce is a democratic object. Sometimes they’re 100 euros, sometimes they’re 10 euros or 20 euros, but the bigger the print run, the better. It’s about sharing this edited information bound and printed to as many people as possible so that everybody can enjoy it.
If I were to compare myself to an architect, I make social housing. Sometimes I’ll make a villa but that's really rare.
INT A big moment for you was when you got to design the annual Dutch postage stamp book in 1987. Previously it had been designed by Wim Crouwel, Karl Maartens and Gert Dumbar. How did you manage to land that job at such a young age?
IB While I was at the Printing and Publishing Office, I was mainly doing work for the Ministry of Culture. And as I mentioned before, I always took on the books nobody wanted to do. It meant I was slightly under the radar – nobody looked at what I was making and I did some crazy things – there was one series of adverts I made where things were upside down and all over the place. And then Ootje Oxenaar [a designer of Dutch banknotes], actually Julius’ former boss, who published, together with the Government Printing and Publishing Office, the stamp annuals, saw these ads and he loved them. He said, “I don’t know who made these, but whoever did should get to do the next stamp annual.”
It was crazy. That’s basically how I got my job doing what I do today. In the beginning, people only knew me because of those books.
INT But the response wasn’t necessarily all positive, was it? There was quite a lot of controversy at the time!
IB Definitely… To start with, I thought everybody was right and I really was shitty. It was 31 years ago. And actually I’m currently working on a book which is about those stamp books. Part of that is about the controversy. I got hate mail, people totally disliked these books in every sense – the quality of the paper, the printing, the typography. As revenge against Total Design, I used Univers, Futura, Gill, used all the typefaces, everything! I was saying, “You didn't want me? Well, I’ll do it again.”
“I think about the content and concepts come up... I’m not somebody who says, ‘oh this seems like a very nice composition,’ I have never worked in that way.”Irma Boom
INT Were people surprised when you got the job?
IB I was one of the youngest people to ever design these books so there was a lot of envy in the group because everybody wanted to do it. This was the job. Nobody in that design department ever got it, it would always go to famous designers and suddenly I got the job! There were four people including me at the Government Printing Office who sat at the same table and people actually left, they were so jealous. They really couldn't handle the fact that the youngest had come in and suddenly got this job everybody wanted.
INT It must have been daunting to have all eyes on you like that?
IB I felt the pressure… I was also a big fan of the stamp books. I remember I was working away on it, fussing over this Japanese fold. Then at some point somebody said, “Hey, what the hell is she doing? Did anybody check what she's doing?”
INT And then they started to check?
IB Yeah, and they found out that instead of 96 pages, I was making 700! And I was doing this really, at that time, complicated binding. They said, “We have to stop her.” And so we had a big meeting. I think there were maybe 14 people – me as a young girl with 14 older men and my boss. My boss had instructed me that I should say I would simplify the design – whatever they asked me, I should just tell them I’d simplify it. I was sitting there thinking, “What the hell is going on?” Nobody had even looked at this until after I did all the work! My boss said, “Irma has something to say to solve the problem.” And I said, “I will continue the books as I have designed them, I won’t do anything else…” My boss was so angry.
INT You must have convinced them, though? Because you made what you wanted to make.
IB Well, it was a Friday afternoon and one guy said, “Let’s think about it over the weekend and come back to it on Monday.” I’ve always worked every day – I still do now – so when I came back on Saturday to work, there was a letter on my table from the director of the printing office – a really high up guy, not the general director, but the director responsible for the printing. He wrote me a letter: “Dear Miss Boom…” And he gave me permission to continue the book as I envisioned it and wished me luck. It was a really nice letter. He was impressed by my tenacity, that I really wanted to do it.
INT Did that give you confidence?
IB Oh yeah! This guy was a very silent guy, a sort of invisible man but a powerful man. The fact that it came from an unexpected angle of support, not from my boss but from this guy. I kept the letter out of surprise.
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Nederlandse Postzegels, the Dutch annual stamp book for which Boom received much criticism is now in the MoMA collection. Image courtesy of Irma Boom
“Making a book is a controlled act like a painting or video work, it’s an integral cultural part of our society.”Irma Boom
INT Things didn’t get much better after the book was released, though. Was the criticism coming from the design community?
IB It was from the design community, surprisingly. And of course, not surprisingly, from the stamp collectors who had a subscription to the series. Many of them sent their books back – they said it was bad printing, complained there was no hyphenation, there is text running off the edges. They complained about everything!
INT Looking back on that work now, how do you feel?
IB In the beginning, I thought people were right and it was a mistake, but now it’s considered my first best-designed book. A colleague of mine at the time described it as a giant, gigantic mistake. But a brilliant mistake.
INT With the power of hindsight, it introduced you to the world as a designer to keep an eye on.
IB Yeah, people from all over the world starting coming to the Government Printing and Publishing Office to meet the designer who made those books and where they made them. I would just show them my table downstairs. Actually, when I left the job, they asked me what I wanted to have and I said the table where I made the stamp books.
INT You said that when you were doing that project, you felt the pressure. Do you feel that same pressure? You’ve been called the Queen of Books – there’s anticipation when you release new work.
IB I do if people come to me with certain expectations, that’s really difficult. I can never meet that expectation, it's always wrong. If people already think that I can make a prize-winning book, I can tell you it will never happen, it will always be a disappointment.
So I don’t think about it. I only do the projects I think I should do and I can really work on and people should give me freedom. I always do my best to make something good but you never know. There are so many reasons why things come together to make a project work and there are even more reasons why something becomes a failure. It's difficult.
INT Do you have quite a set process in place to try and make a project a good one?
IB I always meet the commissioners in person. I think that's really important – I never take a commission on the phone. Never. And I think that there has to be a sort of click there, because you’re going to be spending a lot of time together. We have to be on the same road. I live upstairs. [Julius and I] both work and live here – it’s a sort of 24/7 thing. For every book, the subject really becomes part of our lives.
“I often have to buy them. I buy my own books!”Irma Boom
INT What is it that draws you into a brief?
IB There needs to be some challenge in it. For example, last year I spent five months in Rome as a resident at the Vatican Library – it’s something I’ll continue next year. When I was invited it seemed like such a good moment to be able to study books, to look at what happened to the book. For me, there were two things going on. I’m the producer, the maker of the book but I’m also the researcher of the book so that's a parallel path. I will also make a publication at some point on my Vatican studies. It’s such a good source also to be able to see where I am as a book designer.
INT Materiality is a massive part of what you do – scale, weight, paper choices. How do these things help you communicate concepts, and why is this important to you?
IB Because that’s a book. It's not a PDF.
INT But you really accentuate these elements.
IB Yes. That’s also why for me it is so nice to study at the Vatican Library. All these things which are important for me really have been around already for 500 years. Making books is the most stable medium ever, it’s proved its ability to share information. I think that making a book is a controlled act like a painting or video work, it’s an integral cultural part of our society. And therefore I think that books should also be treated like that. The book is a part of our knowledge and so the book needs attention. Depending on what the content of the book is, it has to have a specific size or it has a weight, or it has volume or there's a specific structure. That's all very important.
Actually, every book I make, I want to make the best book – if I succeed or not, that’s not the issue, but I try.
GallerySheila Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor. Image courtesy of Irma Boom
INT That really comes back to your ideas about the relationship between books and architecture.
IB What I’ve found is really important is the structure of the content, because everything I do comes from content. I still feel I’m a bad designer but I think about the content and think what concepts come up, I can make a book. I’m not somebody who says, “oh this seems like a very nice composition,” I have never worked in that way. I think, what should a book be as a whole? What am I making for this artist or for these architects? What should it convey? And then in that way, I can think about a form, a scale, paper and all these things, but basically, I have to be able to say, what it is, what I’m doing.
INT Is there a project that you think demonstrates the idea of a book being social housing, the best?
IB I see almost all my books that way but Sheila Hicks’ Weaving as Metaphor is one of those where it’s taking care of something, it’s a very specific object – it’s a book as a tool because the book made Sheila Hicks famous. Before her career was slow, and now there’s no end to it – nobody knew her but the book made her visible. It was sold for a pretty low price, especially in the first print run it was 25 euros and that's basically for everybody.
My own little red book is also an example of “social housing”. Because the first print run was 4,000 books and the second print run was 6,000 books. And it’s sold out.
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Boom’s “little red book”, Biography in Books, is just 1.5 x 2 inches and contains a complete overview of her work, with commentary and more than 450 full-colour illustrations in 704 pages with printed edges. Image courtesy of Irma Boom
“You should never make a book for now. You should make a book with knowledge and as a reference for the future.”Irma Boom
INT Is it true that sometimes your books sell out so quickly that you don’t even get one?
IB Yeah, it’s true! I’m going to Paris for a project soon and I don’t have copies! I often have to buy them. I buy my own books!
INT You’re an avid collector of books and have a library upstairs, how long have you been collecting?
IB Well I got a state prize in 2014 and I had to spend the money in my field somehow. At first, I thought “let’s make a book”, but then I thought, “no, that’s what I do all day every day, let’s continue what I am already doing,” which was collecting books from the 1500s and 1600s and the 1960s.
INT Do you use these as sources of inspiration?
IB It’s what, for me, is really important. To be able look at these books and try to understand why people did things, it's interesting to see what happened to the book through these times and how the book got commercialised. Because it wasn’t initially a commodity, it was for sharing information. And the book became something way more democratic. That’s absolutely for sure. It’s very exciting to realise.
INT Famously, you work on projects for years, so what’s next for you? Is there anything on the horizon?
IB The next thing I’m really very ambitious to do is to go back to the Vatican in the coming year but for a longer time. I want to continue the research because I’ve discovered so many interesting things – it’s so addictive to go there. Basically, if they gave me a ticket to go to Rome now, I’d go! It’s really heaven to be there and to realise the meaning of the book.
INT Do you feel you’ve discovered what that meaning is?
IB You should never make a book for now. You should make a book with knowledge and as a reference for the future. The value of the book only rises because it’s this container of thoughts bound together in this is unchangeable entity. I think it’s super important that it’s unchangeable. It’s a thought. It’s a moment in time captured, like taking a photo, or making a painting, but with so much more information. It’s so valuable to humankind, for being alive and to reflect on what we are doing.
After studying at the Vatican Library and seeing all these amazing books, I feel even more inspired to be a book designer than ever.
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.