Over the last three decades the Dutch designer Irma Boom has revolutionised how books look and work. She is also a first-choice collaborator for a generous clutch of A-list creatives who call Amsterdam home, from Rem Koolhaas through Viktor & Rolf and Rin
Irma Boom, and collaborators, at her new Amsterdam studio and library
Irma Boom has a signature look: a dress or skirt in black or deep blue (always by Alexander van Slobbe) and a cardigan in the same shade. ‘I always dress the same, so I don’t have to think about it,’ she says. ‘There are so many other things to think about.’ Her wardrobe management stands in stark contrast to her work: each Irma Boom book is different, and unique.
The Dutch book designer, now 56, aspired to be a painter and attended the AKI Academy of Art & Design in the Netherlands, where she quickly realised art had been just ‘a romantic idea’. ‘There was not the urgency or the drive to make art,’ she says. She tried architecture and photography, then one day she walked into the class of Abe Kuipers, a visual artist and typographer. ‘He came with suitcases of books, and he’d read them and explain them. I had never realised the impact of a book, but from then I was obsessed.’
In 2014, Boom was honoured with the Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts, which came with €100,000 to put towards a ‘special project’. Naturally, Boom opted to spend the money on a library. Located above her studio on Amsterdam’s Koninginneweg, near Vondelpark, the library will house a collection that spans from the 1600s, when books were first produced on an industrial scale, to the avant-garde tomes of the 1960s and 1970s. In her award acceptance speech, Boom said she wanted to create a place ‘where different disciplines meet, where an exchange can take place to discuss the book phenomenon; to talk and fantasise’. The space is scheduled to open this autumn.
Among the 330 (and counting) books created by Boom in the past three decades, only her top ten, which she considers both timeless and experimental, will be put on the library’s shelves. Her favourite – and the one that established her name – is Nederlandse
Postzegels 87+88, a two-volume catalogue of stamps she designed during her first job at the Dutch Government Printing and Publishing Office (SDU). It was Ootje Oxenaar, designer of the famous Dutch banknotes from the 1960s to 1980s, who spotted her talent and commissioned her to follow in the footsteps of Wim Crouwel and Karel Martens, who had designed the previous editions. ‘It was total freedom,’ says Boom. ‘I was an angry young girl. I was naive, fearless.’
‘A book captures time and it’s a result of that moment’ – Irma Boom
The result was bold and challenging: the pages were held in Japanese-style binding, and featured rich layers of images and text running across pages that were sometimes folded and sometimes translucent. The book was highly controversial, but it brought Boom’s name into the public arena and earned her her first Best Dutch Book Design award. Boom began to see the possibilities of the role of book designer – the director of texts and images whose treatment of content is essential to a volume’s success.
In 1991, Boom left the SDU and set up her own studio in Amsterdam. Then came another turning point in her career. Together with art historian Johan Pijnappel, she spent five years creating a book to commemorate the centenary of Dutch industrial giant SHV Holdings. Think Book has 2,136 pages and weighs over 3.5kg. Only 4,500 copies were printed for shareholders, but it turned Boom into a brand, and one of the world’s most in-demand bookmakers.
Back then, Boom was devastated to discover that another ‘fat book’ had appeared just months before her own – Rem Koolhaas’ seminal work S,M,L,XL. ‘It’s terrible, somebody has come before us,’ she told the late Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, then chief executive of SHV. His reply? ‘Well, we are in such good company, Irma. It’s totally fine.’ As it turned out, the books brought Boom and Koolhaas together and they have since become close friends and collaborators. Koolhaas wrote a tribute to his friend in
Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book (2013). ‘Irma offers books that have bodies, albeit sometimes very small ones. Books that smell, have weight, take off, are sawed, pummelled, have sharp edges or eroded borders to the point of bleeding; they’re brutal, beautifully delicate but never slick.’ The monograph, now in its second edition, measures just 1.5 x 2in but runs to 800 pages. ‘The book grows 3 per cent every year, so when I am 80 I will have a regular-sized book,’ Boom says.
Like an architect, Boom makes models to test out ideas and materials – to examine the balance of text and images, and to look in an abstract way at the rhythm of the piece. The solution is often hidden in the content, and the design will reveal itself if one pays enough attention. ‘A book is a container of thoughts and content,’ says Boom. ‘It captures time and it’s a result of that moment. It’s frozen and unchangeable. For me, a book is an edited version of a thought, of an idea. The notion of freezing time and thoughts – I think that’s essential. That’s why I make books.’ irmaboom.nl
Irma Boom’s Book club Barend Koolhaas Architect
The building designed for Boom and her partner, Julius Vermeulen, epitomises Barend Koolhaas’ professional outlook. ‘Architecture is about creating possibilities and spaces for the imagination,’ says the architect, who replaced the garage of Boom’s newly acquired 1905 house with a multi-floor structure.
The ground level connects to studio space in the main building; another floor houses a new art space, Eenwerk; and a greenhouse sits at the top. Angled glass windows and dark basalt-covered walls communicate a sense of lightness, so the building seems almost to float. Viewed from the inside, the structure is a functional blur, in a good way, its different elements fusing into one continuous space, albeit with a range of atmospheres. It offers unexpected moments that will challenge the artists and designers who are invited to collaborate and exhibit there.
Koolhaas studied in Delft and New York, then worked at Ideo in Silicon Valley before joining OMA in Rotterdam and Hong Kong. He returned to the Netherlands in 2011, where he designed a series of shops for shoemaker Jan Jansen; four years later he created his first house in Almen. ‘I am really excited about these tailor-made commissions for people who really love architecture and are willing to be creative with it,’ Koolhaas says. His next project, a jazz cafe, is a collaboration with fellow architect Reinier Suurenbroek. barendkoolhaas.com
Julius Vermeulen Art and design consultant and gallerist
In January this year, after 28 years of service, Vermeulen stepped down as art and design consultant at Postnl, the Dutch postal service, having commissioned stamp designs from leading Dutch talents such as Jan Bons, Walter Nikkels, and his partner, Boom. ‘A good stamp acts as a modern, distinctive Dutch business card,’ he says. ‘It’s a very democratic form of art – everyone can buy it.’
Vermeulen became interested in design as a teenager, through his father, pioneering typographer Jan Vermeulen. He is currently immersed in his next project, the Eenwerk (One Work) gallery. Just a single work by one artist, created specially for Eenwerk, will be shown at any one time. The inaugural show in October will present a piece by fellow Amsterdam resident, flimmaker and artist Steve Mcqueen, to be followed by Icelandic conceptual artist Hreinn Fridfinnsson.
Scarlett Hooft Graafland Visual artist
From the salt flats of Bolivia to isolated farm sheds in Iceland, Hooft Graafland journeys to remote human habitats to tell stories of man and nature. But her work is carefully stage-managed surrealism, more Magritte than National Geographic. Her photograph of an Inuit man leaning against an orange igloo made of lemonade, from the You Winter, Let’s
Get Divorced series, was chosen by Boom for the cover of the artist’s book, Shores Like You (2016). ‘The scenery is always staged, but the setting reflects the local culture and reminds us of the smallness of humans amid nature,’ says Hooft Graafland, whose next project is to write the stories of her expeditions. scarletthooftgraafland.nl
Petra Blaisse Landscape and interior architect
In 2003, Blaisse invited Boom to join forces for a competition, asking her: ‘Do you want to leave paper and come into nature?’ Boom helped her envisage a botanical garden, the Library of Trees, for a ten-hectare park in Milan. Their winning design is due to open next spring.
Blaisse set up her multidisciplinary practice, Inside Outside, in 1991. For her first solo show, at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York in 2000, Boom created Movements 25%: Introduction to a Working Process. Its pages have interior projects on one side, landscape designs on the reverse, while holes cut in the pages connect the two.
Blaisse is working on her first house, in Berlin, an insulated glass structure that stands inside the uninsulated attic of a former hospital. insideoutside.nl
Rem Koolhaas Architect
Koolhaas and Boom have just reworked for Taschen the 2,600-page Elements of
Architecture, which featured in Koolhaas’ acclaimed exhibition at the 2014 Venice È
‘I recognise in Irma an enthusiasm for creating’ – Viviane Sassen
Architecture Biennale. ‘We’re looking at the moment when digital techniques began to have a deep influence on architecture,’ says Koolhaas, who co-founded OMA in 1975. ‘Most of the buildings today have to be fit for human beings, but maybe in the near future, they will be robotised and practically uninhabited. I think we need to prepare for post-human architecture.’ oma.eu
Taco Dibbits Museum director
When Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum reopened in 2013 after a ten-year, €375 million overhaul, it did so with a new minimal logo, a fresh typeface and a Dutch Masters-inspired colour palette, all created by Boom to replace the 32-year-old design by Studio Dumbar. ‘Our art is old, but the Rijksmuseum has always been a contemporary platform,’ says Dibbits, the museum’s general director since 2016. ‘And the efficiency of Irma’s design is crucial to the museum’s success.’ rijksmuseum.nl
Rineke Dijkstra Portraitist
A Japanese 4×5in view camera with standard lens on a tripod, and a flash on another tripod behind it: Dijkstra has been working with this simple set-up for 25 years. ‘It demands a lot of concentration, both from me and from the sitter,’ says the artist, whose work focuses on the power and fragility of youth. Dijkstra won the 2017 Hasselblad Award for photography, and Boom is marking the occasion with a book to accompany an exhibition in Gothenburg in October. mariangoodman.com
Viviane Sassen Fashion and fine art photographer
Sassen’s work has always been a mirror of her personal experiences. The 2014 Umbra series was an attempt to deal with the death of her father, who passed away when Sassen was in her twenties; it was also her first collaboration with Boom, and it became an award-winning title for them both. ‘Irma’s work ethos is incredible,’ says Sassen. ‘I recognise in her a kind of enthusiasm for creating. She has that enormous drive to create beautiful things.’ Her next project is about womanhood (‘It probably has to do with the fact that I’m a mother now,’ she says), with a show at G/P Gallery in Tokyo in October. vivianesassen.com On the walls Of boom’s studio, work in progress On her latest book projects is displayed page by page, so she can view the balance Of text and image
Viktor Horsting & Rolf Snoeren Fashion artists
The duo began their professional life in Paris after graduating in 1992, and lived therwe for four years before heading home: ‘Amsterdam is like a global village, everything here is just so close to you.’ Next year marks their label Viktor & Rolf ’s 25th anniversary and they asked Boom, their graphic design teacher at Arnhem Academy of Art and Design back in 1989, to create a monograph. ‘We don’t want a clichéd fashion book; it needs to be something else. Irma is the best person to make a difference,’ they say. viktor-rolf.com
Jacqueline Hassink Conceptual photographer
‘I was blown away by Irma’s Vitra magazine
[Workspirit, 1998] and all my books have been designed by her since, says Hassink, who made her name with The Table of Power (1996), images of the empty boardrooms of multinationals. She revisited the project, with Boom, after the 2008 financial collapse, publishing Table of Power 2 in 2011. Her latest project, Unwired, focuses on internet ‘white spots’, with a book and a show, at Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam in January, both designed by Boom. jacquelinehassink.com
‘Irma is the best person to make a difference’ – Viktor & Rolf
BOOM’S NEW LIBRARY ON THE FIRST FLOOR, HOME TO TOMES RANGING FROM KORENBLOEMEN (1672) AND ELLSWORTH KELLY (1970),
TO HER BOOK MANIFEST (2015). ON THE TABLE ARE ARCHITECTURAL MODELS OF THE PROJECT
This picture, boom and her Team at work; They usually have about 15 projects on The go below, a model of The new extension
this picture, in Boom’s library are a ‘smoke’ chair By maarten Baas and Jacqueline hassink’s photograph of a tranquil moss garden from her (2011) series View, Kyoto
Below, petra Blaisse with her grandchild in Boom’s studio, with a group zero artwork in the Background