Interview with Irma Boom

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By: Michael Silverberg | July 22, 2011

When Irma Boom makes a book, it’s not just a book but the book. The 50-year-old Dutch designer can spend years researching a project, and she insists on being a partner, not an employee. But her imperiousness is in the service of creating an object that, whether it’s an acclaimed monograph on Sheila Hicks or a 2,136-page history of the Dutch conglomerate SHV, couldn’t have been designed for anyone else. Print’s managing editor, Michael Silverberg, met with Boom at a Starbucks on Manhattan’s Upper West Side to talk about why she hates “clients,” can’t stand handicraft, and despises authority.

What are you doing in New York?

I’m working on a book for the Bard Graduate Center. Tonight is the opening of a show about Knoll textiles, and I designed the catalogue accompanying the exhibition. It’s a book of more than 400 pages, but we’re finishing it now, so it’s hopefully going to press today.

You’ve said that American designers work harder than Dutch designers, but Dutch designers are better designers.Did I say that? We have, of course, a completely different culture. To give an artist or designer a commission is a very old habit, if you think of Rembrandt and Vermeer in the Rijksmuseum in the 17th century. I think that’s a completely different situation from here. It’s a collaborative exercise. It’s not, “You are my designer, and you have to do this.” We’re on the same level, the commissioner and me. I never say “client”; that’s really important.What kinds of books come out of those relationships?More specific books. I spend a lot of time on my commissioners and going back and forth. I’m a tiny, tiny office, and here in the States there are big studios. You get a better result when it’s not in this corporate environment.

I’m also on the editorial board, and for me that’s almost mandatory. To be involved from the very beginning is almost mandatory. I have maybe a sort of character problem. I cannot stand authority. I’m totally against authority. I cannot stand it, I cannot handle it. And the moment that it comes into a commission, I’m lost. And then it becomes difficult. I think we always need to talk on the same level, and not from top to bottom.

Does government support, like you have in Europe, affect how designers work? That changes a lot how things look. I went to the States in 1990, and I really wanted to live in New York. And I went to the MoMA, to the Whitney, to the Met—any museum I thought was interesting. I went there to show my work and ask if I maybe could make catalogues, and they always said, “Your work is so Dutch.” And what does it mean that my work is so Dutch? “You don’t have any image on the cover. Your covers are not selling.” They said, “Well, maybe in the future, but now your work is too subtle.”I almost feel like your work has more in common with artists’ books than with—I hate artists’ books. I hate it, I hate it. I think “artists’ books,” then I think of a print run of one or two. My books are all industrially made. What you see is that the book is not simply a book; it’s also an object. That’s what makes it special. But an artist’s book I associate with handmade things, and my books are never handmade. I think a book has to be industrially made, because that’s the whole idea of a book: to spread information. That’s what interesting about it. And artists’ books—to me that’s not a book. That’s a piece of art.

Do you approach books like a product designer does?No, I really approach books for what they are, as books, turning the pages. The object. Sometimes I see books, and I think, Well, it could have been a PDF. The regular book is not alive anymore. You can put it on a PDF on the internet, or on a Kindle or iPad, and it’s the same. But my books are something else. They have to be this three-dimensional object. Somebody once said that I’m building books. I really like that expression very much.