Irma Boom
Johannes Vermeer Award Laureate 2014

The Netherlands has an extensive system of art prizes. Within it, funds, institutions, individuals and companies are all responsible for contributing to the visibility of artistic talent in our country. The Johannes Vermeer Award, the Dutch state prize for the arts, occupies a special position in this mosaic of prizes. The government established the award six years ago with the intention of promoting top artistic talent, and also from the realisation that we are fortunate enough to have exceptional talents within our borders. Without that talent the face of our public space would wither, cultural life would be impoverished and the spectrum of industrial development opportunities would narrow. The last five winners of the Johannes Vermeer Award not only have successful careers in common, but also share an ability to extend their creative impulses to the media industry, the built environment and the diversity of the cultural offer that is subject to continuous global development. It is important that the Netherlands maintains its connection to this development.

For maximum effectiveness, an independent jury, with a varying membership, advises the government on its selection. The jury this year set out by delving into the reasons for granting the award to the previous five winners. In recent years, candidates were proposed for their great achievements in the fields of the performing arts, film, photography, architecture and art. With this group in mind, the jury this year decided to give priority to an artist with a recognisable profile in the field of design. The members decided it was essential that the winner of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2014 should be a designer whose work is distinguished by a high degree of originality as well as exceptional quality. Someone, furthermore, who is an international leader with great significance for their field. A designer, finally, whose oeuvre appeals to a range of clients, users and an admiring wider public.

With this assessment framework in mind, the jury set to work this spring. In the course of the successive inventory and selection rounds, one name kept coming up, inevitably and unanimously: that of Irma Boom. As a designer of books, she occupies a uniquely elevated position in her field. Based on a highly developed conceptual ability, combined with innovative and varying production methods, Irma Boom has been showing a steady development for several decades now. She can currently look back on a body of work that includes more than 300 books. She confirms her significance in every single book that she makes, thereby contributing to a much-needed argument for a respectful approach to the book as a cultural medium. With her designs, she convincingly expresses that the book is much more than an information carrier; it is rather the tangible embodiment of the stories, knowledge and ideas that matter.

Life and career

Irma Boom was born in 1960 in Lochem. In 1979 she enrolled as a student of painting at the Academy for Art and Industry (AKI) in Enschede. There she was greatly influenced by Abe Kuipers (born 1918), himself an artist, but also eminent teacher able to convey to his students the world of dimensions, content, typography and poetry. To illustrate his ideas, every Wednesday afternoon he would bring several books and study materials along to the academy. In this way, Kuipers set his student off on the trail of book design, a track that she would never leave.

After her studies, Irma Boom worked at the government printing and publishing office (SDU) from 1985 to 1990. Her first striking designs are from this period: including her yearbooks of Dutch stamps for 1987 and 1988. In 1991, she started her own studio, Irma Boom Office in Amsterdam. Almost 25 years later, that office is still hardly more than a one-woman company. Often, she answers the phone herself, and she personally conducts negotiations with her clients from start to finish. With each completed book, she also registers the reality of experience; a moment of learning which she uses to optimise the next book with new insights and further developed techniques.

The work

In the early days of her own studio, an important event was the commission from entrepreneur Paul Fentener van Vlissingen (1941-2006). This called for a book about the first hundred years of the company SHV. With this commission, which she worked on for five years together with historian Johan Pijnappels, she professionalised the working method that is her signature: the making of a book as a joint adventure shared by creator and client. Over and over again Irma Boom attempts to crawl into the skin of her clients and to fathom their deeper desires. Through negotiation, concepts gradually gain stature, and ideas mature concerning structure, form, layout and materials. The commissioner and the commissioned are equal parties during this process, and at the end of it they have a product that corresponds more closely to the goal than either initially thought possible. There is virtually no other designer who takes the client so seriously. This fact also explains why all Boom’s books achieve such different results. So a commission for a museum can be built up into a book in which, as it were, a new version of that museum is shown — a version that gives the museum’s own collection an existence separate from the museum so that it acquires a whole new allure. A book about artist Sheila Hicks who works with textiles can become not a book with pictures of textile designs, but a tactile artwork in itself.

Irma Boom likes to communicate about her approach and methods. She regularly gives lectures and is a guest speaker at various institutions. She has taught at Yale University in the United States since 1992. In the 2010 publication, The Architecture of the Book, she describes the changes she has gone through since her first assignment, partly on the basis of a visual overview of all her designs.

The key to the work of Irma Boom is in the synthesis of the artistic and the industrial, which are intertwined in perfect balance. Boom is truly of this time. She does not opt for handcrafted books, but insists that everything is industrially produced. From the perspective of mechanical reproduction, she sees the book as an architectural object with six sides and three dimensions. Within these coordinates, she puts the object together with the greatest care — which she devotes not only to the design and the lettering, but also to the selected materials: paper type and weight, dyes, and the cardboard or plastic of the jacket, or sometimes textiles and wood. Even the question of how the book should smell can be a point of attention. As can the size — large or small — depending on the message that the object must convey. For her client Chanel she made a book without using ink, entirely in relief. Inspired by the world of Coco Chanel, the book unfolds within the contours of poetry, mystery, music, the modern and the invisible, superstitions and flowers. A book creation in pure white, encased in a black box — so Boom concretises the abstract realms from which the first avant-garde perfume, Chanel No. 5, emerged.

Irma Boom has primarily established her name as a designer of books, but she doesn’t restrict herself to them. She has designed stamps, commemorative medals, annual reports, posters, logos and complete corporate identities — including one for the Rijksmuseum recently. In 2013, she was involved in the renovation and redesign of the North Delegates’ Lounge in the United Nations Headquarters in New York for which she created a monumental curtain. She also designs for public spaces, such as the tableau consisting of 75,000 tiles in the new cycle tunnel under Amsterdam’s Central Station. In all areas of her work, Boom shows a familiarity with technical innovations. Using them, she repeatedly strikes out on new paths, seeking aesthetic possibilities as yet unprecedented.

Through all of her books, the work of Irma Boom is directly accessible to the general public. But the museum quality of her designs is now recognised. They are included in the collections of leading international museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The University of Amsterdam, Special Collections, manages her living archive.

Grounds for granting

On the basis of all the observations summarised above, the jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2014 unanimously nominated Irma Boom as a laureate. The jury considers her to be endowed with a special ability to connect graphic techniques with spatial design. Based on her drive to experiment and her unfailing tendency to push the limits of production possibilities, her books transcend the level of mere information carriers. They are small or larger objects to admire, tempting us to read them with close attention. Her carefully crafted work is the result of the collaborations she always enters into with her clients, authors and artists. For her, the book is a fundamental part of our tradition and a carrier of culture. Through her work, she proves herself to be a most persuasive advocate of the printed book.

In the world of the internet and virtual communication, Irma Boom's greatest achievement is that she has made the book a physical experience once more. She continues to impress with her ambition to push the boundaries with each and every book, her unbridled desire to reach beyond the original wishes of her clients, and her ability — maintained for decades — to deliver work of the highest artistic quality. For all these reasons, the jury has chosen her as the deserving winner of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2014.

The prize jury consisted of Ernst Hirsch Ballin (chair), Claudia de Breij, Marie Hélène Cornips, Omar Munie and Erwin Olaf.