Speech Irma Boom

27 October 2014

Madam Minister, chairman of the jury, members of the jury, family, friends,

If you google ‘Johannes Vermeer books’, in less than a second you get 131,000 results. A total of 35 paintings are recognised as being by Vermeer, and all 35 are amazing.

Since 1986, I have made about 300 books. Perhaps ten of them may stand the test of time.

So apart from working by commission, and a specific use of colour, we don’t share much common ground.

A detail: Vermeer was buried in 1675 on December 15, which is my birthday.

The invitation states that you were invited to the new Mauritshuis, but in reality we find ourselves now in the literary society, De Witte. I visited the spot where we are now two weeks ago for the first time. I had to get used to the idea. Especially since I wanted my speech to start with the very first book which I made at the state printing and publishing company SDU in the Hague: a book about the Mauritshuis in the series ‘Small Monuments’. Recently, I was able to buy the book online. To be honest, I had hoped that it couldn’t be found, because it isn’t really good. I had very little experience and imitated my older colleagues. I had yet to develop the idea that you could make a design your own.

That the Johannes Vermeer Prize is now being awarded to me in The Hague is perhaps a coincidence, but perhaps not. Last year, Rem Koolhaas was awarded this prize in the Rijksmuseum library in Amsterdam. That would of course have been the ultimate place for me. But here in The Hague, I learned — and unlearned — almost everything concerning design. Then, working at the SDU was for me the opposite of heaven.

Working in a bureaucratic culture, in which everyone looked at their watch expressively when I arrived late (in their eyes) … while I was always the last one who went home. It was all very different from waht I had imagined.

So later the three month internship at Studio Dumbar in The Hague was like heaven. I learned there that designing is not a job but an investment in yourself and the client. There I learned that designing is not a job, but an investment in yourself and the client. There I learned that you could create freedom within a given task. To set your hand to a commission in such a way, that the time invested is not only useful but also joyful. Freedom and trust are ultimately two of the most important principles in my way of working.

So how do you feel on hearing that you are to be awarded such an important prize? Naturally joyful, but then immediately after comes reflection. Is it deserved? Is the work really as good as the jury report makes you believe? I can see that I’ve been very lucky with circumstances and with being sometimes in the right place at the right time.

Making books is time consuming but incredibly fascinating. It’s something I want to spend almost all my time on, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. You could call it obsessive. I’m obsessed with the printed book. The book as physical object. The possibilities and impossibilities that it offers are so challenging and so thrilling that I can hardly understand why not everyone shares this essential excitement.

The literal making, the construction of a book, the discovery, the search for a new material form with a new way of looking, is addictive. I want to search constantly, within the limited resources of printing and binding, for that which is specific to the subject of that book.

Making books will never become routine for me. The eternal question of whether it is good enough. Changing things right up until the last moment, even when the presses are running. Anything to make the book — hopefully — better. It can always be better. When I started as a designer, I thought that this feeling meant ignorance or incapacity. But now I see this doubt as a benefit. It leads to a delay in doing, so creating space to think about things. It is a quest for perfection. A quest that I will probably never complete, but maybe the imperfection itself is beauty.

At the SDU, where I eventually worked for five and a half years and where I learned an incredible amount, for each and every book assignment all the specifications were already fixed: format, size, paper (120 g/m2 mat mc), the number of printing passes and even the binding. In order to shake off these shackles I had to create freedom by, for example, creating a design that was simpler that it could have been according to the specifications. So in a situation where everything is thought to be completely under control, by just doing things slightly differently you can arrive at different solutions. For the so-called ‘order managers’, that was so extraordinary that they did everything possible to get the design realised. Extracting freedom from a rigid situation.

An example of this is the annual report for the Dutch Arts Council of 1987: according to the order, A4, matt mc, with pictures of all disciplines, full-colour, stitch bound.

This became a slightly wider A4, with no images but with quotes from literature, printed on Bible paper in black and gold, with long fold-outs. Not extremely different, but approached from a different perspective. This report nevertheless led to questions in parliament. In particular, the use of extremely long lines, 600 instead of 67 characters per line, was experienced as illegible.

The Dutch stamp yearbooks from 1988 were the first books in which I did the picture editing in collaboration with the author Paul Hefting. The term pictures editing in the context of a designer at that time was quite unusual. For me, this way of working meant a chance to never work again according to the old established principles. So-called ‘authorship’ has become self-evident and the manner of designing a project based on the content.

Through an intensive collaboration with the client, author, artist or architect, each book is specific. The solution to the design is often already hidden in the content. With a strong focus on the content and the dialogue, the outcome — the design — is a logical consequence. Making books is a joint effort. Without synergy, there can be no energy, and without energy any project is doomed to fail.

I have been fortunate to have a number of ultimate clients whom I could work with for a long time.

In the Think Book, which Johan Pijnappel and I made for SHV Holdings in Utrecht, there are about 70 questions. One of the questions is: What can we learn from mistakes? Example: It’s clear that a book that I made about a library was a failure. From a moral point of view, that’s a great shame because of the waste of time, paper and everyone’s efforts. What went wrong? Actually, I knew when I visited the library for the first time. In the large entrance hall, which was almost like an airport, a huge number of books were placed in front of a theatrical blue wall. The book as a piece of furniture, decorating a room — that did not bode well. In showrooms too you see such arrangements, and then the books are literally flat, as decoration and perhaps to make a space more interesting. I felt frustrated and I should have been more alert and listened to what I saw. Stopped the project. There was no starting point for the design. I feel sad for the publisher and the architect that I was not able to recognise it then, and therefore I apologise for that even now.

But is the answer to the question ‘What can you learn from mistakes’ that you should no longer do certain things? I think that you should especially not be afraid to make mistakes. This question is more interesting than giving an answer.

What do you do about criticism or comments about your work? The most shocking experience I had was in 1989, with the jury report of the Best Dutch Book Designs.

I quote the jury report concerning my very first Best Dutch Book Design, the stamp yearbooks for 1987/88. “Undoubtedly, many of those interested in the background of Dutch stamps have cancelled their subscription to the series following this publication. As practical reference books, these barely legible publications largely miss the mark. Texts printed over each other, the absence of hyphenation, the large-set opening words of new phrases sometimes changing into the regular corps in mid-syllable, the pagination starting at random points … it all differs very much from the typographic pattern books provided as reference. (…) The main reason for the jury to proceed, regardless, with crowning this achievement, is the fact that a climate for book design has apparently arisen in the Netherlands that makes such experiments possible. That they fail is unfortunate, but the client and publisher of this much-discussed series deserve praise for their daring. Which does not mean that there have not been large risks in the area of accessibility and readability. That the texts run up to or even over the edges of the pages is perhaps symbolic of the jury’s final conclusion: ‘This is an experiment that goes over the edge. So it failed, but it is a brilliant failure.’….” End quote!

When I read this, I thought I could not show my face on the street, or I would be pilloried. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The jury report ensured that I acquired a reputation for the kind of things that many clients were hungry for: something risky, something new.

In retrospect, I am so grateful to the author. His words were provocative and challenged me to investigate the phenomenon of the book further and to embark on further experimentation. I invited the author of this jury report, an older colleague from the SDU, for this evening, but he is currently on a cruise to South America.

Recently via twitter an American critic called my work ‘aggressively simple’. I can identify with that.

I respect the traditional book, but I don’t want to let myself be limited by it. I want to develop further both the meaning and importance of the book, as well as its limits. In the insights and structures which originated in new media, the medium of the book has a new impetus. It is important that I can experiment freely without fear of failure, in order to maintain the vitality of the book and above all to take it further. I research the limits of the possibilities of the form, and I don’t allow myself to be restrained by technology.

These sentences are the start of almost every lecture that I give at conferences. Often, I am the only one who takes objects, books, with them. I feel exactly like a dinosaur in a place where everyone wants to be just very modern.

A week ago, I was in London at a conference on the topic of Extinction. I was challenged to defend the book, which I do not think the book needs at all. Whether it still has a right to exist. I suggested that, precisely in this age of the Internet, haste and superficiality, the book brings delay and depth. That’s just one of the great qualities of the book.

Making books means composing text, images and information in a bound form. Freezing content, in contrast with the flux of the Internet, whereby a document is created which in turn gives rise to reflection and encourages further investigation.

I also believe that the biggest threat to books is the fact that people hardly read anymore, or at least much less. A development that may be influenced by the Internet. But the same Internet has also created new trends in the printed book: from a linear structure to a book you can browse through, just like a website.

Will the book survive? We are at the beginning of the renaissance of the book!

Finally, I would especially like to thank you, my clients, for your immense trust in me. Trust that is essential in a collaborative process. That is necessary because I know I can sometimes keep clients waiting, Then I am incubating things, looking for something, dead silence, not answering emails …. But then as soon as the idea is there, there is no stopping it.

Trust creates freedom.

Freedom gives responsibility.

It can also happen that, when I receive a call for an assignment, I immediately have the design in my head, I can see the completed book immediately before me. But through the eternal doubt I often leave it there for a while. I’ll go make models, mini-sized and full sized, and keep it a little while for myself. Ultimately, working on commission is about a mutual desire to make something, something specific for that particular topic.

I would like to thank the printers and binders, who materialise my projects. They make the impossible possible.

A library is a place where a collection of books is brought together in a composed collection. Libraries have existed since humans began writing and there was a need to keep and sharing texts.

Cicero wrote in the first century AD: Reading and writing in my private library offers me no comfort but distraction. Distractions from the noise of the world. A place to think.

The need to create a place where different disciplines meet, where an exchange can take place to discuss the book phenomenon, to talk and fantasise.

I want to create a library — there is already a basis of books from the 16th century to the avant-garde books of the 1960s — that could lead to such a discussion. Some of my books will also be part of the library. [In 2017 Boom’s library was inaugurated. The New York Times published the following article on it.]

Finally: The need for the intimacy of the book — the paper, the smell of ink, the scale, the size and the weight — this is certainly not nostalgia or false sentiment. The printed book is a fundamental and integral part of our tradition and culture, of our published and public knowledge and wisdom.

The book is dead.

Long live the book!

Thank you.

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