The experimental book designer who isn’t afraid to push boundaries – and crack some spines along the way.
Considering how much Irma Boom’s life revolves around books, it’s surprising that she likes to head to a bookshop in her time off. Yet her passion clearly spills over from her work. The graphic designer, often nicknamed the “queen of books”, has crafted about 330 in a career spanning three decades.
Even now that she’s on a break from putting together a book of her own, she can’t keep away from the pull of print. Specifically, she can’t resist buying at Architectura and Natura, an 80-year-old shop in her native Amsterdam. “It’s very relaxing because I’m not working on a book at the moment,” she says. “Leaving the office is very refreshing – and important.”
It is here that she sources many of the books that end up on her bulging shelves. “They speak the same language as me. This bookshop is like a magnet: it has every book you could want.” The real draw, though, is the expertise of owner Gaston Bekkers, who has been a friend and collaborator for 30 years. “I come here to just hang around and talk with Gaston about new releases. He will say, ‘You are interested in this but have you seen this?’”
It’s also an occasion for leisurely research. Browsing the tables lined with handsome volumes on subjects ranging from Japanese architect Tadao Ando to a study of ants, she says, “It’s good to see what’s out there. It’s better than going on a website. A bookshop is where all the knowledge is gathered.”
Boom stumbled into book design while studying painting at the AKI art school in Enschede. Her 1988 design of a catalogue for special-edition postage stamps was her initial break. The experimental publication, which included text set on its side, caused uproar – but she received a slew of Dutch design prizes.
Many more projects since have sought to challenge conventions. In 1996 she created the landmark publication SHV Think Book. Together with art historian Johan Pijnappel she was given five years to chronicle the history of SHV, a Dutch private trading company. She created a volume of 2,136 pages, weighing 3.5kg. Despite eschewing a digital format, it was still reflective of the technological advancements of the time. “It has an enormous relation to the internet,” she says. “There are no page numbers, it’s non-linear; it’s a huge book that you can just browse.” It’s also timeless; Boom created it to endure for hundreds of years. “You make a book not just for now but for the future.”
Today she’s still pushing the boundaries of what a book can be. In 2013 she created a title for Chanel No 5 without ink; the letters were embossed on the page to emulate the invisible presence of perfume. The pages of Weaving as a Metaphor, a book she designed for artist Sheila Hicks, have ragged edges in an ode to Hicks’ textile work. And her own monograph, The Architecture of the Book, is an 800-page miniature of all her work.
Her four-person studio also works on other projects – such as exhibition design for the likes of the Rijksmuseum – but the core of the work remains books. For Boom it’s important that they can be held – and owned. “That is the whole point of making books,” she says. “They are made to be sold.”
She clearly enjoys being a customer too: her five-storey home includes a library stacked with books from the 1400s and 1500s, as well as design titles from the 1960s. “I leave the bookshop and think, ‘Yes, I have this new book,’” she says, punching her fist in the air with mock joy. “There’s a sense of euphoria and an element of surprise.”
1960 Born in Lochem, Netherlands
1985 Graduates from aki Academy of Art and Design
1987 Designs catalogue of Dutch postage stamps in 1987 and 1988
1996 Publishes SHV Think Book 1996 – 1896
2014 Receives Johannes Vermeer prize, the most prestigious Dutch arts prize
2019 Publishes Tim Walker: Shoot for the Moon