Johannes Vermeer Award 2014: Irma Boom

Last night, on October 27th, I was invited to join the winner of the sixth Jahannes Vermeer Award at the newly reopened Mauritshuis in The Hague. This year the city of The Hague honored Irma Boom with the prestigious award as well as 100,000 euros to be used for the realization of a special project.

Mauritshuis The Hague

My first encounter with the Vermeer Award happened a few years ago when I stepped out of the Central Station in The Hague and saw the stunning photographs of Erwin Olaf decorating the see-through walls of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Every time I walked out of the station my day was significantly brightened by Olaf’s art. So far there were five exceptional individuals awarded with this prestigious accomplishment. It all began in 2009 when Pierre Audi, an opera director, won the first award. Others included Alex van Warmerdam (filmmaker, writer and artist), Erwin Olaf, Marlene Dmas, and my personal hero: Rem Koolhaas.

My fascination with books designed by Irma Boom began during my MA studies a few years ago. Ever since I could remember I was always drawn to books. From Carolingian manuscripts, Persian illuminated Book of Kings, colorful Books of Hours, William Blake’s illuminated books and William Morris’ Kelmscott Press were an endless source of joy.

The British Library with its digitization project made all my dreams come true when it began uploading breath-taking manuscripts, and by so doing generated great interest in the medieval world of the book. Crazy marginalia flourished on Twitter and masterpieces such as The Adventures of the Medieval Killer Bunny showed that these manuscripts can be fun and very entertaining.

Perhaps it came as little or no surprise that my final research MA thesis explored the contemporary book in the age of the digital revolution. Irma Boom’s name became a synonym for new, intelligent and truly contemporary book design. I read all there was to read about Irma’s books, and quickly enough realized that what I stumbled upon was an incredible subject, a real uncharted territory and it was happening right under my nose!

For years I have been writing about works of art created by artists who were no longer with us (for at least a millennium), and thus approached this subject as I would any other – through the object and not its creator. I strongly believe that once an artist releases its masterpiece to the world, the masterpiece begins its independent existence detached from its creator.

Dealing with medieval art, I was always more interested in the theories of reception since it allowed me to see how people reacted to the artwork. When I discovered the public’s reaction to Boom’s stamp-books I was intrigued and frustrated at the same time. What could be so outrageous about a book? What was considered to be a ‘normal’ book, and why? Which rules did Irma break that awarded her powerful enemies as well as friends? Endless questions kept me sitting in front of my computer until finally I felt ready to be confronted with the object in question (or perhaps objects as there were two stamp-books).

Since then, two years have passed and my book is finished. As I sat among legends such as Wim Crouwel, Rem Koolhaas, Gert Dumbar and many more, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of justice for Irma. There are many wonderful artists working today, but no one is as revolutionary and unique as she. The speech Irma gave was beautifully constructed, inspiring and memorable. I would like to share some of it with you:

‘Madam Minister, chairman 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 recognized 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 color, we don’t share much common ground. Detail: Vermeer was buried in 1675 on December 15 – which is my birthday.
That Johannes Vermeer Prize is now being awarded to me in The Hague is perhaps a coincidence, but perhaps not. …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 what 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 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.
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 the 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.
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. (…) 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.
Finally: The need for the intimacy of the book – the paper, the smell, 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 public knowledge and wisdom.
The book is dead. Long live the book!
Irma Boom, Johannes Vermeer Award 2014