Irma Boom’s Library, Where Pure Experimentalism Is on the Shelf

Irma Boom at her office in Amsterdam. CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
AMSTERDAM — Irma Boom pays careful attention to word choice. The Dutch designer, one of the world’s pre-eminent bookmakers, is loath to say “client” and refers to her projects as “commissions.” She also doesn’t call herself an artist.
Never mind that Ms. Boom, 56, was once in a group exhibition at the Pompidou Center, or that many of her books are in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. Her belief that she is not an artist could be a matter of culture — a product of her “Dutch rigor,” as the architect Rem Koolhaas, a close friend and collaborator, said.
But there are many who would at least consider Ms. Boom’s books works of art. Among them were the jurors of the Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts, which she won in 2014. “Her books transcend the level of mere information carriers,” the jury’s report stated. “They are small or larger objects to admire, tempting us to read them with close attention.” She received 100,000 euros to put toward a “special project,” as the prize stipulates. “I cannot simply go and shop at Prada,” Ms. Boom said.
So Ms. Boom has used the prize for the quixotic, endless undertaking of creating a library of what she called “only the books that are experimental.” Above her studio here, the recently opened library is made up almost entirely of books from the 1600s and 1700s, and the 1960s and ’70s.
Irma Boom designed “Movements 25%: Introduction to a Working Process,” an Inside Outside/Petra Blaisse book. CreditIrma Boom
Those eras are when bookmaking wasn’t held back by conventions, Ms. Boom said, and when books “breathed freedom” in content and form. (Many of today’s e-books, by contrast, represent a “provisional low point” in the art of bookmaking, writes Mr. Koolhaas in the catalog “Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book.”) Her library includes poetry collections, as well as exhibition catalogs that experimented with form — a book bound with bolts, for example, or contained within what seems like a three-ring binder.
The books may be centuries old, but Ms. Boom would argue that the form is more effective and relevant than ever. “Information is edited and put in a specific sequence, printed and bound,” she said. “The result of this effort is the freezing of time and information, which is a means of reflection.”
Compare books with photographs or paintings, she added. “An image is serving as a reference of time and place,” she said. “The flux inherent in the internet doesn’t allow you that kind of time. The printed book is final and thus unchangeable.”
Ms. Boom juggles about 15 projects at any given time, and has ventured into exhibition and graphic design. (In 2012, she created a logo for the Rijksmuseum here, in which she separated “Rijks” and “museum” and caused a minor scandal when people complained about the space.) When she first began school at AKI Academy of Art & Design, in the Netherlands, she wanted to be a painter. She also tried architecture and photography. But then she met Abe Kuipers, a teacher who would come to the school with a suitcase of books, which he would pull out and discuss. “I was totally intrigued by the idea of bookmaking,” Ms. Boom said.
She became more immersed in design, and interned at the Government Publishing and Printing Office in The Hague, where she returned after finishing school.
“I thought, let’s do that for a year,” Ms. Boom said. A brief stay turned into more than five years. The office, she said, was “totally dull.” It was here, though, that she began to experiment with design on a grand, public scale. She took, as she said, “all the jobs nobody else wanted.” Given a lot of freedom, she produced radical state publications. In 1988, Ms. Boom designed a sensational pair of stamp books that made her a public figure in the design world, which allowed her to leave her government job, start her own studio and work solely on commissions.
This 2,136-page book, printed for shareholders of the multinational and private trading company SHV on its centennial, weighs over eight pounds. CreditIrma Boom
Among her early projects was a book to commemorate the centennial of SHV, a multinational and private trading company. She made a 2,136-page book weighing more than eight pounds. Only 4,500 copies were printed — 4,000 in English and 500 in Chinese — for shareholders. Today, they are coveted among collectors and sell for thousands of dollars.
Around the same time, in the mid-1990s, Mr. Koolhaas had published his magnum opus, the six-pound “S,M,L,XL.” “It’s sheer coincidence that two Dutch people — we were the first with this kind of fat book,” she said.
Mr. Koolhaas and Ms. Boom had never met, but once they were introduced in the United States, they began a prolific partnership that continues to this day. “We were surprised by the similarities, the kind of sensibilities that seemed to be totally synchronized,” Mr. Koolhaas said. “It was the blatant evidence weighing several kilos that we had done something very close. There was an almost natural reason and incentive to collaborate.”
Since then, many people have asked Ms. Boom to make them a “fat book.” “Of course I can, but you cannot repeat something unique,” she said. “I want to create new things.”
Creation begins with a concept. (“It always has to have a concept,” Ms. Boom likes to say.) She then carries out her vision not with software, but with models — handmade, drastically scaled down versions of her projects that she uses to test ideas and materials. The final result often looks as if it could never have been designed on a computer. In a catalog she made of the artist Sheila Hicks’s woven artwork, for example, the edges of the pages, soaked and sawed, echo the edges — the selvage — of Ms. Hicks’s art.
Nina Stritzler-Levine, who directs the Bard Graduate Center and organized Ms. Hicks’s show “Weaving as Metaphor” there 10 years ago, said that the book “stretched my mind.”
Ms. Boom considers the catalog her “manifesto for the book.”
It caught the eye of MoMA, which after that began collecting Ms. Boom’s oeuvre. Paola Antonelli, a curator at the museum who collaborated with Ms. Boom on the catalog for the 2008 exhibition “Design and the Elastic Mind,” said that her books are “very important as objects” and could never exist electronically. “There’s a physicality that’s amazing,” Ms. Antonelli added. “It’s always a physical object with something that makes it unforgettable.”
Ms. Boom has worked with other artists, like Olafur Eliasson, who described her as both humble and a perfectionist. “Everything’s really 120 percent about the book, and not about her personality,” he said.
Ms. Boom’s rare book on the story of Chanel No. 5 famously has no ink. The text and images are embossed on soft paper. CreditIrma Boom
Some of her own projects have made their way to the library, including another rarity: a book for Chanel that has no ink. “It’s the ultimate book,” Ms. Boom said. “It only works in its physical form.” As a PDF, it would be just white pages.
The book is the story of Chanel No.5 — which, as the first synthetic fragrance in a radically simple bottle, was considered avant-garde in its time. Because perfume is impossible to see once applied, Ms. Boom said, “I wanted to make a book with content not printed.” The text and images are embossed on soft paper; it is surprisingly readable.
Ms. Boom continues to add to the library, which she said would never be complete. There are discoveries still to be made, many of them at auctions and antiquarian bookstores. She often finds unexpected design innovations from centuries ago. “Sometimes you think you invented something,” she added, “but it’s already been done.”
Eventually, Ms. Boom said, her library will become a haven for book lovers who want a space to appreciate and study the books — no white gloves needed. In a way harking back to her art school days with Mr. Kuipers, she also wants to invite people to discuss what she called the “phenomenon” of the book. “I wouldn’t call it a salon because that makes it so bourgeois.” (Again, careful word choice.) “It’s a library.”

5 of Irma Boom’s Favorite Books

Constantijn Huygens’s book “Korenbloemen.” CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
‘KORENBLOEMEN’ (1672) “Every typographic experiment — what you think now is new — has already been done,” Ms. Boom said while flipping through this book, by the 17th-century Dutch poet Constantijn Huygens. She called the paper, which hardly seems to have aged, “amazing.” There is small typography in the margins, as well as foldout illustrations and other traits that were experimental when books, as we know them today, were still young. “When something is new, that’s when it’s at its best,” she said. “You have these books where there is text along the edges. Imagine if you could do that now. People have gotten more conservative.”
“Ellsworth Kelly.” CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
‘ELLSWORTH KELLY’ (circa 1970) Kelly, the titan of 20th-century art who died a little more than a year ago at 92, was a hero of Ms. Boom’s. This undated monograph is, in her opinion, “the best book on Kelly.” Its layout is minimal and reflects the simplicity of Kelly’s painting, with foldouts for multipanel works. “It’s only in specific places that it’s in color,” she said. “Then, it’s glued in.” Ms. Boom has long dreamed of making a book for Kelly, but said she was too afraid to ask. Last year, for an exhibition at the Slewe Gallery in Amsterdam, she created “Hommage à Kelly,” a sublime, 1,216-page tribute inspired by a small Kelly painting she owns. Only 99 copies were printed.
“Art of the Sixties.” CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
‘ART OF THE SIXTIES,’ FIFTH REVISED EDITION (1971) “Every time I see one of these, I buy it,” Ms. Boom said of this catalog, which exists in five coveted editions, by the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. “I really need to have it.” The inside has a scrapbook feel, with a mixture of materials bound together by bolts and a plastic cover. Still, Ms. Boom said, the book is simple. “It’s very informal and effective,” she said. “You see a portrait of the artist printed on transparent film, and a work on packaging paper. By turning the pages — basically, what a book is — something happens.”
“Andy Warhol.” CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
‘ANDY WARHOL’ (1969) This catalog for Warhol’s first exhibition in Europe, at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, is in black and white, but with a cover in vibrant colors. And the book is “very organized,” Ms. Boom said. “After the great, colorful cover, the book starts with quotes in English and Swedish by Andy Warhol, then the artworks,” she said. Exactly in the middle, she added, are Factory scene photos by Billy Name printed with a full bleed, which “creates a beautiful black line in the middle of the edge.” The design is simple, but “extremely strong, and effective,” she said.
Dieter Roth’s “Collected Works, Vol. 7.” CreditIlvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times
‘COLLECTED WORKS, VOL. 7’ (1974) The Swiss artist Dieter Roth (1930-1998) is another of Ms. Boom’s inspirations. This book had a print run, but each copy was made with pages taken from comic books. “Every book is different,” Ms. Boom said. “It’s basically a great piece of art.” And, in keeping with Ms. Boom’s philosophy that every well-made book requires a concept, she celebrated how well Roth executed his “extremely good idea.” “It’s really inspiring to look at this,” she said. “It’s an eye-opener, and a mind-opener.”