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Reinventing the Book | Case Study: Irma Boom

If electronic media is a practical tool for conveying information, books are information sculpture. From now on, books will be judged by how well they awake this materiality, because the decision to create a book at all would be based on a definite choice of paper as a medium. (Kenya Hara)

For nearly three decades Irma Boom has designed books that pushed the limits of typography, text-image conventions, materiality and binding. Through her commissions Boom blurred the lines between a designer, image editor and author. Her unusual way of story telling provided the book with new life in the digital age. Irma Boom’s books are celebrated as works of art, exhibited in museums around the world, and featured in the permanent collections in most prestigious art establishments around the globe. Her commissioners have included Chanel, Vitra, and the Rijksmuseum, and the Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam maintain her living archive.

Irma Boom’s name became a synonym for innovative design that keeps on pushing the boundaries of the traditional book design, while respecting its long-lasting tradition. In this paper I will take a closer look at two books designed by Boom and through these case studies explore the immense changes that led to their emersion. This article is divided into two parts: first, I will show the revolution Irma Boom made in the world of the book, I will question what a book is, and finally through the SHV book demonstrate the impact that Boom’s revolutionary design had on the printed book. The second part of this article examines the new role of the book in the digital age. Through Weaving as Metaphor, I will point out the function of the book not only as a container of information, but also as a collectable work of art.

Part 1: Boom’s Revolution

For centuries, until the introduction of mechanisation in the printing and publishing industries in the 19th century, all books were unique hand-crafted objects. The texts were set by hand, each copy produced represented a series of separate pulls on the printing press, and the resulting printed sheets were gathered, folded, sewn and bound by hand. No two copies of a book of this period can be truly identical even before leaving the bookseller’s shop.

Books have been the containers, essential in taking the texts from the authors and bring them to the consumers, as well as preserve those texts for the future. Much of the veneration with which books have been surrounded for so long is to do with the texts and ideas and their transmission, rather than with the book as an object.

It is clear that in today’s world, many aspects of the book that once seemed so clear must be reexamined. First, let’s take a closer look at the new definition of the book as Joseph A Dane suggested in his 2012 publication. Dane redefined the accepted concept of the book as being either a ‘book’ or a ‘book-copy’. A ‘book-copy’ is a specific copy we hold in our hands, whereas a ‘book’ is an abstract concept.

After redefining the basic notion of what a book is, we notice that books, as opposed to book-copies, can function as something that is completely detached from its primary function of delivering information. Once the book is free from this function, what can it possibly offer its reader?

SHV thinkbook

SHV, English and Chinese editions, designed by Irma Boom

During the 1990s, Irma Boom became an internationally acclaimed designer. Her Amsterdam office handled national and international commissions, and her unusual book design attracted one of the most influential and important commissioners Paul Fentener van Vlissingen (1941–2006). Van Vlissingen, the CEO of Steenkolen Handels-Vereeniging (SHV), was an exceptional commissioner. He was an economist, a philosopher, an environmentalist, a philanthropist, and the CEO of a multinational company.

In 1991 Van Vlissingen commissioned a project that caused ‘the impact of a small earthquake in the world of Dutch graphic design’. Irma Boom and the art historian Johan Pijnappel, were commissioned to produce a commemorative object celebrating the centenary of SHV. This object would be distributed internally to the company’s shareholders and its main function would be to inspire future generations. The commission was to be completed in 1996, and the only guidance Irma and Johan received was to ‘look for the unusual’ and make it durable for five centuries.

Van Vlissingen’s commission did not specify what kind of object should celebrate the company’s hundred years of existence. After much deliberation, it was agreed that the only object suitable to withstand the test of time was a book. In May 1996, when the SHV book was finally published, the result was like no other jubilee book. Irma Boom designed an inspirational book that would take its reader on a journey through the company’s history that would ultimately influence its future.

The SHV book is considered to be a masterpiece of design and printing. There are two editions of the book: four thousand English books, and five hundred books translated to Chinese. The SHV book has 2136 unnumbered pages, it is 170 x 225 x 113mm, and it weighs an impressive 3.5kg. It is the most expensive jubilee book ever printed, and it is not for sale. You might be wondering how a book about a Dutch coal company, which was never for sale, became the icon of Dutch design? To answer this we must take a closer look at this remarkable object.

The SHV book, by its form and content, separates itself from other books and invites its readers on a new kind of reading experience. This book was not designed for a linear reading and therefore it does not possess the familiar characteristics of a Western book. There is no title page, no table of content, no clear division into chapters, nor a colophon or even an index to guide the reader through its 2136 unnumbered pages. This book, inspired by the World Wide Web, takes its reader on a multilayered journey — each journey is unique and cannot be replicated.

There are many hidden treasures in the SHV book that can be revealed after long and careful examination: eight red bookmarks, if placed correctly, reveal the book’s hidden title thinkbook; three red sheets of postage stamps added to each publication; the hidden title on the white cover of the book becomes visible after excessive use — SHV: WHAT TOMORROW? There are endless surprises and inspiring phrases hidden in this unusual book. Its decorated edges reveal a colourful field of tulips on one side, and a poem by the Dutch poet Gerrit Achterberg ‘Bolero van Ravel’ on the other. Since the book was not available for purchase, a veil of mystery surrounded this publication.

Besides the hidden treasures and the mystery regarding the publication, in SHV Irma Boom truly mastered the medium of the printed book. For this book, Irma used a special recipe for making the pages and used the best glue. There is a remarkable use of the latest laser printing technology, the stainless steel enhancement for the spine of the book: all make sure this book will last for centuries to come.

Six months before the SHV book was published, another important ‘thick book’ was created by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Canadian designer Bruce Mau. S,M,L,XL with its 1344 pages was published almost simultaneously in different parts of the globe. These books demonstrate unusual and non-linear story telling, as well as a new interest in a book not only as a container of information but also as three-dimensional object that can tell a story in a new way.

In 2001 Irma Boom became the youngest individual to receive the prestigious Gutenberg prize awarded by the Institute für Buchkunst and funded by the Cultural Administration of Leipzig. This award included an exhibition of Irma’s books and a publication to exemplify Leipzig’s tradition as a historical center of quality print work and the fostering of book arts.

Gutenberg-Galaxie II became Irma Boom’s first monograph. The opening lecture praised Irma’s achievements in a relative short period of her creative career and referred to her work as ‘works of art… which lack all dissatisfaction facing backwards, which illustrate the creative and conceptual possibilities for interpretation of our present without nostalgic over-attentiveness’.

Irma Boom’s books forever changed the way we previously engaged with books. She managed to bring the printed book to the new millennium by creating a new experience for the reader that is dependent in the printed three-dimensional object.

Part 2: Books in the Digital Age

In the past five hundred years or so, the history of the book has changed in more ways than one, but these changes never threatened the physicality of the book as an object. The basic structure of the book — its paper/parchment, script/typeface, ink and binding — was never threatened. The traditional book adapted its form to any technological and technical developments while keeping its core features. The twenty-first century’s electronic book was the first real threat to the physicality of the book. For some, digitisation brought the five hundred-year-old Gutenberg era to an end, while others see this development as an environmental achievement that could only contribute to our way of living.

The new millennium has changed many aspects of our lives as well as the process of book production, and for some designers it created an opportunity to redefine the printed book. Computer hardware and software developments combined with the explosive growth of the Internet created new opportunities that were not possible in the past. The Industrial Revolution separated the process of creating and printing graphic communications into various tasks, each requiring specific expertise. In the beginning of the 1990s typesetters, engravers, skilled specialists who created page layouts, plate-makers, and press-operators were no longer needed in order to produce a book. A single individual could control most — or even all — of these functions using a desktop computer, and this individual could even become a new kind of co-author and influence not only the form of the book but its content.

The new millennium shifted the main source of information from the book to the World Wide Web, however, the printed book quickly adjusted to the change by providing its reader with an additional value that could not be reproduced in a digital form. The next case study will demonstrate the power of the printed book in the digital age.

In 2007 Irma Boom’s book Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor was named ‘Most Beautiful Book in the World’ at the Leipzig book fair. This book became a bestseller, collector’s item and exposed the textile designer to new audiences around the world. People who were never interested in textile design or Sheila Hicks’s works wanted to own this beautiful object. The success of the book caused the Museum of Modern Art in New York to include Irma Boom’s books as part of their permanent collection.

Sheila Hicks, designed by Irma Boom

The great popularity of the book led Google Books to add the digital version of the book to their collection. The digital version of the book, despite the identical reproduction of the book’s content, fails in every possible way in comparison to the physical book. If we examine the digital edition we will find the design to be fairly conventional. The book begins with an informative essay by the art critic Arthur Danto. The essay is presented to the reader in legible typeface set in large letters that gradually decrease as the reader continues reading. The essay is followed by over one hundred imaged of Sheila Hicks’ miniature works on the right-hand page, and a brief description of the work on the left page.

When we look at the printed version of Weaving as Metaphor we can immediately understand why this book was named the most beautiful book in the world. The book is an all white brick-like object, 15.5 x 22.5 x 5.9mm, with unusually rough edges and a work of art — its cover. The edges of the book are not a mere decorative element, they echo the rough edges of Sheila Hicks’ textile works of art. The book’s white cover does not depict one of Sheila’s works in excellent colour printing that would appeal to textile lovers, instead it shows an actual work of art — a graphic interpretation of Sheila’s 1990 Nuage by Irma Boom.

Weaving as Metaphor, designed by Irma Boom

Modern literary scholars have increasingly recognised and became interested in the influence, which presentation has on the way a text is perceived by the reader. The meaning or the interpretation of a text is not something absolute, but is endlessly recreated through the experience of successive readers. When Irma Boom designed Weaving as Metaphor she wanted to create a new interpretation of Arthur Danto’s essay. Irma realised that our understanding of a text is ultimately influenced by the form of its presentation, and therefore the type set of the essay appears to us so unconventional.

Weaving as Metaphor was a successful collaboration between an American textile designer working with a Dutch graphic designer, the book was published for the Bard Graduat Center in New York, by Yale University Press in London. Perhaps it will not come as a surprise that such worldwide collaboration did not come without creative differences. The publisher did not agree to use a white cover for the book nor did he think that such an unconventional type set of Danto’s text would be appropriate for their scholarly publication. Irma was even fired from the commission by the Bard curator and editor, but after putting four years of her life into the project, Irma could not abandon this book. She continued sending her ideas and the project carried on with no more mentioning of the termination.

The success of this commission perhaps was also contributed to the secrecy and mystery surrounding the production of the book. As with the SHV thinkbook, Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor was a project that never revealed its technical innovations. Irma Boom never disclosed how the edges of the book were made, and in her interviews she mentions that the binding was ‘top secret’. On various occasions Boom went against the hand-made book as well as ‘artist books’, since they stand against everything she believes in: ‘I hate hand-made books. They have to be industrially made’. It is a well-guarded secret how the binder created the rough edges of the Sheila Hicks book, and despite my numerous attempts to unveil this mystery, its secret remains uncovered.


In this article we took a closer look at two books designed by Irma Boom. These books allow us to see the new meaning of the book in the digital age, the active role of the designer in the publication process as well as the need for a new kind of printed book. With each of her publications, Irma Boom reinvents the traditional book. It is hard to imagine any other individual following her footsteps, since the digital revolution entirely changed the world we are living in, but it would be interesting to observe where the journey of the printed book will continue next.


1. Boom, Irma. Gutenberg-Galaxie II. Leipzig: Institute für Buchkunst, 2002.

2. Dane, Joseph A. What Is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012.

3. Danto, Arthur Coleman, Simon, Joan, Stritzler-Levine, Nina and Irma Boom. Sheila Hicks: Weaving as a Metaphor. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2006.

4. Dutch Profiles. Irma Boom. Accessed March 31, 2015.

5. Epstein, Jason. “The End of the Gutenberg Era”. Library Trends (vol. 57, no.1, 2008).

6. Hara, Kenya. Designing Design. Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 2007.

7. Kuitenbrouwer, Carel. ‘A Monument Made of Money,’ Eye (Spring, 1997), accessed on March 31, 2015.

8. Lommen, Mathieu. “Living Archive,” in Irma Boom: Biography in Books. Books in Reverse Chronological Order, 2010–1986, With Comments Here and There, trans. John A. Lane. Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam, 2010.

9. Pearson, David. Books as History. London: The British Library, 2012.

10. Purvis, Alston W. and Cees W. De Jong. Dutch Graphic Design: A Century of Innovation. London: Thames & Hudson, 2006.

11. Van Vlissingen, Paul Fentener, Boom, Irma and Johan Pijnappel. SHV. Utrecht: SHV, 1996.




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Art historian, researcher & book enthusiast currently living in The Netherlands

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