Irma Boom’s Visual Testing Ground

As artists in charge of shaping messages at all scales, it’s surprising that book designers are not a more outspoken lot. But they don’t capture the headlines with their work like designers of other everyday objects. Rarely do we get to hear the book designer’s tale. It’s not for lack of relevance, or artistry—the book designer fuses the work of writers, photographers, editors, and publishers into a stack of desirable paper and ink. Translating these voices into such a low-tech form requires an architect of the page.

Irma Boom is the Dutch master of this quiet craft. Over the past fifteen years she’s created books on Vitra furniture, Ferrari cars, Camper shoes, and Dutch buildings. Her book on the work of textile designer Sheila Hicks, Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, was named “Most Beautiful Book in the World” at the 2007 Leipzig Book Fair. Taking a break one evening to talk with Metropolismag.com, Boom breaks the habit of her usually meek profession to discuss American design schools, the problem with “clients,” and the book in the age of the Internet.

What’s keeping you at the office this late?
Well basically I do book design—which is not only design, but also editing—so it’s time-consuming. And I’m always involved right from the beginning of a project as part of the editorial board, which makes my design process even more time-consuming, but that’s what I like. Because then you can make something special.

And you work out of Amsterdam?
Yes, though I also teach graphic design at Yale. The students there work very hard; much harder than the Dutch. It’s a different education system—the American students pay so much tuition, they want to have value out of their money.

So the difference is that the Americans work harder than the Dutch?
[Laughing] But the Dutch are much better designers! Well, that’s a bit rude to say, but I think Dutch design is formally stronger. In terms of theory, however, the Yale students or American students know so much more about history—the history of design—and you can feel that in their work. In the Netherlands, graphic design is much more hands-on and practical, which is not always so good.

Is that your window into the American design scene?
Yes, but I must say I’ve given many lectures in the U.S. I’ve been to all the schools—RISD, CalArts, Cranbrook—so I know a bit about what’s happening.

Do you think that there is a lack of exciting formal work from America?
Yes. Around 1990, I had the idea that I wanted to work in New York—to move to New York. I showed my work there and they always said, “Well, we would need an image on that cover,” or “We need this or that,” and I thought, why should I go to the States—to New York (which I love)—when I’ve got such wonderful work here? So I decided to stay in the Netherlands. But at one time it was my dream to live and work in New York.

But you still follow the design coming out of New York?
Oh, of course. And it’s interesting: We can experiment much more here in the Netherlands because if we make books here, we have this subsidy system. It’s not like in the States where you have to sell twenty-thousand books; we make two-thousand books and the books are subsidized. The print runs are smaller, which means less risk for the publisher, and ultimately puts less commercial constraints on the design. It’s a different approach. Not that the books don’t sell, but that is not the worry of our commissioners.

I never talk about clients, by the way—I have “commissioners.” I think with a client, the designer works for them. So instead, I have commissioners I work with. The commissioner is on an equal level as the designer. Not like, “I’m paying you—you have to do this for me.” A commissioner is different. In Dutch the term is a bit more precise than in English; to you “commissioner” feels like we’re talking about an artist, but in the Netherlands a commissioner is someone you work—I say—with.

In the States we have these celebrity designers…
You mean like David Carson?

Yes, or even Chip Kidd who can be more expressive in his work…
But he’s worked already for such a long time and his book covers have proved to be selling. So those factors are part of why he’s a star. I think in Holland we also have great book cover designers, but they’re less famous because of the smaller print runs, and plus we don’t have the big celebrity scene here in the Netherlands.

What are you working on right now?
A catalog for MoMA, which is almost ready to go to press. I’ve recently been designing quite a few books for the U.S. I did a book for Phaidon called False Flat. I think my very best book is for Sheila Hicks, Weaving as Metaphor, and it was also with a New York commissioner. The Bard Graduate Center—Nina Stritzler-Levine, the editor—was my commissioner. And I think it’s so amazing that with her, and of course with Sheila Hicks, we could create the book in this unconventional way.

What are the elements that came together to make it so successful?
Well, I’d worked with Sheila Hicks already for three years on a book project—a catalog of her work—but there was no deadline, so I was experimenting. I must have made about fifteen dummies, or models, for her book. Then she was invited to have a show at the Bard Graduate Center, and suddenly we had to make a book in six months. So I used some of the ingredients I had already designed and put them into that book.

And it’s also because I became friends with Sheila Hicks—we had visited each other and traveled some together. So we got to know each other very well, and I think that’s what you can feel.

So the book just flowed naturally from that relationship.
Yes. She and Nina also had to be very supportive of the book, because it’s not an American-style book. Not at all. It looks like a Dutch book. But it’s fantastic that the Bard Graduate Center and Yale Press finally said “yes” to this project. Some publishers can be very conservative.

At first they said, “It’s a white cover and it will never sell.” But it sold out immediately. And now the second printing is almost sold out.

And your project with MoMA?
It’s a catalog for [the MoMA exhibition] Design and the Elastic Mind, which opens in February. And with this particular project I tried to do, of course, a special book, but making a book across three continents becomes quite complicated. There’s MoMA in New York, my office in Amsterdam, and the printing is in China. I must say, it’s a challenge to get it done well.

And you are at the center of that relationship. Do you find printing going to China more and more?
Yes, even Dutch projects. It’s all China. In a way they print well, but to have these refinements like I did for the Sheila Hicks book—to have this super-book, to make a superb book—I have to travel to China to get it done. Of course they are capable of doing it, but it’s all in the attention and also the relationship you have with a printer and a binder.

Do you work on other things besides books?
Yes—I’ve designed stamps, I’ve done posters, I do typography for museums and design those enormous banners they’re always changing. Oh, and I’ve worked on a few Web sites. But then I hire freelance people, because I need another mind to help me with that.

Do you find it more difficult to work digitally?
No, I like it. I love it, actually. But when we did the SHV book—we started in 1991—and I didn’t want to make a book at all. I wanted to make a CD-ROM. But I’m very happy that I decided to make a book, because as a book it’s very special, but as a CD-ROM it would have been old-fashioned by now, because it would be 11 years old. Nobody would ever look at that CD-ROM anymore, but the book is still an engaging piece.

Do books compete with the Internet?
I think the subject of the internet and books is very interesting. Books became much more interesting because of the internet. Since we did her book, Sheila Hicks’s work is now on the internet. Sheila is 73, but with the book, she’s had a revival—now people know who Sheila Hicks is. And before the book, only people in the seventies knew. And in turn, the book gained status—became more important—because of the internet.

This flux must make for a very exciting moment to be working as a book designer.
It is indeed exciting, but it’s not all fun. Normally it’s work but then in some things I will see possibilities.

Yesterday I was talking on the phone to someone who wants to create a book, and as we were talking I started saying, “We could do this and this and this,” and he said, “Well that sounds like a lot of work.” But that’s the only way we should do it. It’s my life, it’s my time. And it’s the commissioner’s time as well, so I want to make the best out of it.

The book can be small, it can be big, it can be whatever. (And it has nothing to do with money. Nothing.) But it should be good. We use paper, we use printers, we use binders, we use a lot of people’s time, and I think we should use it well.

So a book starts with a phone call, then what are the next steps?
Then we have a meeting, and sometimes the commissioner has a piece of writing or photographs or a rough concept for how to approach a subject.

I’m doing a book, for example, on a Dutch artist. So I had a meeting with the editor and the gallery owner. The next week we went to visit the artist in his studio. I asked the artist if I could see his library, and we talked about books, because it’s all about having his work in a book. We discuss the authors and the photography, and then I want to have a look at his archive…so step by step.

At some point I will make a model to show everybody—a model with the work in it, so I will be cutting, pasting, gluing, working by hand.

Do you have to push yourself to break out of what is expected? For instance, if you were designing a dictionary, would you immediately try to avoid making it alphabetical?
I would say, “Put it on the Internet.” It’s better! I love dictionaries, but I think for the 21st century, a dictionary should be on the Internet.

Do people need to spend more time with your books? How do you feel about someone who may just casually flip through one of your books?
Fine. No problem. With some books, it can be a slow medium. It’s turning the pages—that’s the entire experience of a book. It’s a very simple tool, and doesn’t always have to be treated like a treasure.

In older days, a book was made for spreading information, but now we have the Internet to spread information. So to spread something else—maybe sheer beauty or a much slower, more thought-provoking message—it’s the book. But I don’t mind if someone wants to flip through it.

It sounds like you’re saying there are some ideas that ought to be spread around the world on the Internet, and some ideas that should be spread in books.
Yes, well, it’s tricky to make a comparison with the Internet, because it is changing so fast, and it still has to develop a lot. Plus, there’s so much advertising on the Internet! In a book you don’t have any of that. It’s just the one idea. It’s free from those flying banners—it asks for your attention without all these things from outside. It’s high concentration, and if a book can pull that off, I think it’s super.

Do you have a word of advice for a young book designer?
I always say: Stay close to your own ideas. Often people think that graphic design is a sort of fashion, designers changing their style with the times, but I don’t believe that. Even when talking to a commissioner, of course it’s important to listen very carefully, because from these conversations I get all the ingredients for the book. But I cannot stand to be told what to do. I immediately drop my pen. I stop a project if someone says, “I want you to do this.” “Ask somebody else,” I say.

Being stubborn is also very important. There are so many projects if you are a designer—for Web sites, and with books it’s printers, binders, editors, writers, photographers, illustrators, publishers. Everyone has something in mind. But at the designers desk it all comes to this one thing. There it has to be developed. It has to be made.

That’s a bold statement in the face of our commissioners.
Well, the discussion is very important. And if somebody has a good argument, of course I’m ready to listen. It’s all about arguments, but not about using red versus yellow. If there’s a good argument for choosing red or yellow, okay.

Maybe that’s the whole basis of my work: it’s the argument. In fact, I can only discuss my work because I have an argument. I can say why I do things. It’s not because I like a rough edge. No. No way! I do a rough edge because it rhymes with the unique thing about Sheila Hicks’s work: the selvage of her weavings. Every edge of her textiles is different. And that’s why the book has rough edges. I can explain to you why I do every single thing. It’s my argument.

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