Speech by Minister Bussemaker on the occasion of the presentation of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2014 to Irma Boom
Mauritshuis, 27 October, 2014
Ladies and gentlemen,
In 1967, the fifth Biennale international de la Tapisserie on textile art took place in Lausanne. One of those exhibiting was the American artist Sheila Hicks. Hicks showed a work made from linen with bunches of free-hanging cords. It hung from the ceiling. During the opening, a TV crew arrived with a certain Madame Cuttoli who was a patron of the biennale. She walked up to Hicks and asked whether she was also exhibiting a work of art. “Yes,” said Hicks, “It’s hanging up there.” And she pointed to the ceiling. Madame Cuttoli responded: ”I don’t see a work of art.” Years later, Hicks would say that for some she was a persona non grata, while for others she was ‘a heroic pirate’. She added that there is a huge freedom in being an outsider.
In 2006, 39 years after the 1967 biennale, the book Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor appeared, created by the Dutch graphic designer Irma Boom. The book is thick and white and it doesn’t so much present its subject, as portray it. It is as tactile as a textile. Once you hold it in your hands, you want to own it.
Boom builds books. Or as Irma herself once said, “I consider making a book to be like constructing a building.” I myself am the happy owner of two of Irma’s buildings: Biography of Books and 1001 Women adorn my bookshelf. The project with which Irma finally made her name was the so-called Think Book for SHV Holding in 1996. 2,136 pages thick. No page numbers. She worked on it for five years and was given carte blanche by her ‘commissioner’, Paul Fentener van Vlissingen. Note: ‘commissioner’, not client. The strength of Irma lies in her approach to a task. She does not present herself as subservient, but wants to work with you. It is a conversation between the commissioner and Irma. Through it, the latter eventually completes the commission herself. Preferably, there are no briefings — they just create noise. So you want a book of 100 pages about 50 years of family history? You will probably get one with 2,000 pages covering two centuries. It is the most beautiful book you have ever owned, and most probably will ever get. That is the reward for the trust given.
She is uncompromising. And she lives up to her name. Boom. In Dutch, it means ‘tree.’ Like her namesake, she is no pushover.
The collaborations with Hicks and Van Vlissingen were very successful. But Irma's first project received rather less praise. She was employed by the SDU, the state publishing company, and constructed the Stamp Yearbook 1987 to ‘88. When it was released it was mocked. Many traders sent the book back. Later, it was called a ‘brilliant failure’. She herself sees all her books as mistakes. And each new book as a correction to the previous one. She shows us how instructive ‘failures’ can be.
With the philately yearbook Irma positioned herself — though not consciously — as an outsider. She had found her own voice and style, and so began to work for herself. That was in 1991. A quarter of a century later, many people have enjoyed her unique voice and style. The key to the work of Irma Boom is in the synthesis of the artistic and industrial: which are entwined in a perfect balance. Her work fits into the Dutch tradition of clarity, tautness, a certain rigour and a strong sense of aesthetics. But Irma adds an extra ingredient: she approaches the book as an integral design. Her graphic design is not so much a part of the book; it is the book. See her SHV publication, the Hicks book, her inkless work for Chanel and the bright yellow family biography, James Jennifer Georgina.
But Boom builds more than books. There are stamps, commemorative medals, annual reports, posters, logos and complete corporate identities — such as the one she completed recently for the Rijksmuseum. In 2013, she was involved in the renovation and redesign of the North Delegates’ Lounge in the UN headquarters in New York where she designed a curtain. She also designs for public spaces, such as the tableau for the new cycle tunnel under Amsterdam’s Central Station. The original commission for this called for a design for a border of tiles 30 centimetres high and 100 metres long. It turned into a design for the entire tunnel. 70,000 hand-painted wall tiles from Royal Tichelaar Makkum can now be admired at Central Station in Amsterdam. Irma, you are, to use a phrase of Sylvia Hicks, a ‘heroic pirate.’ And I hope that for decades to come you will keep using the freedom you have gained as an outsider.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, It is now time for me to quote from the jury:
“In all areas of her work, Boom shows a familiarity with technical innovations. Using them, she repeatedly strikes out on new paths, seeking as yet unprecedented aesthetic possibilities. 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. On the basis of all the observations summarised above, the jury of the Johannes Vermeer Award 2014 unanimously nominates Irma Boom as laureate. The jury considers her to be endowed with a special ability to connect graphic techniques with spatial design. For her, the book is a fundamental part of our tradition and a carrier of culture. 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.”
In addition to the jury’s text, I would also like to read the message that Princess Beatrix sent to Irma:
“Ms I.E.F.M. Boom,
I sincerely congratulate you on the well-deserved prize that is being awarded to you tonight. This recognition also underscores the importance of the special artistic book design that you, with your unique talent, have elevated to a global stage. I wish you all the best and many more creative years ahead.”
27 October 2014”
Finally, I would like to add a few words of my own: Irma, congratulations. Besides being a ‘heroic pirate’ and a great designer, you are also a lovely person!