Van der Velden welcomes Boom with an essayistic introduction, beginning with the cyclists’ tunnel next to Amsterdam Central Station, for which Boom designed a tiled wall. According to Van der Velden, the handmade tiles form a pattern that is not an image but an object. This quality also typifies her most important activity: that of making books. The book that served as Van der Velden’s introduction to Boom’s work and with which she achieved fame is the more-than-fist-thick anniversary book for the Steenkolen Handels Vereeniging (SHV), published in 1996. According to Van de Velden, this book made corporate design cool again. He immediately lays the slightly less thick book S,M,L,XL next to it, designed by Bruce Mau for and with Rem Koolhaas, which appeared a few months before the SHV book. Boom would later have a longstanding partnership with Koolhaas; she confesses that the fact that his thick book appeared earlier than hers bothered her considerably. The next book that Van der Velden picks up was designed for Project Japan, a collaboration between Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. He points to aspects of the book that would normally be considered ‘design faults’, but which Boom included consciously. Her ends with an analysis and highly personal panegyric to Boom’s concentrated, careful and idiosyncratic way of working.

The setting is a table full of books. At the table, seated next to each other are: left Irma Boom and right Daniel van der Velden (Metahaven). Every now and then, one of them lays one or more books in the centre of the table, above which a camera records the books and projects them onto the wall behind.

Van der Velden welcomes Boom with an essayistic introduction, beginning with the cyclists’ tunnel next to Amsterdam Central Station, for which Boom designed a tiled wall. According to Van der Velden, the handmade tiles form a pattern that is not an image but an object. This quality also typifies her most important activity: that of making books. The book that served as Van der Velden’s introduction to Boom’s work and with which she achieved fame is the more-than-fist-thick anniversary book for the Steenkolen Handels Vereeniging (SHV), published in 1996. According to Van de Velden, this book made corporate design cool again. He immediately lays the slightly less thick book S,M,L,XL next to it, designed by Bruce Mau for and with Rem Koolhaas, which appeared a few months before the SHV book. Boom would later have a longstanding partnership with Koolhaas; she confesses that the fact that his thick book appeared earlier than hers bothered her considerably. The next book that Van der Velden picks up was designed for Project Japan, a collaboration between Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist. He points to aspects of the book that would normally be considered ‘design faults’, but which Boom included consciously. Her ends with an analysis and highly personal panegyric to Boom’s concentrated, careful and idiosyncratic way of working.

Boom listens to all of this with a slight air of embarrassment and appears agitated at simply having to talk about her books. She explains that the SHV book is a reaction to the internet: it’s a book that you can browse through. She and art historian Johan Pijnappel were given complete freedom and ample time – five years – to realise the publication. Boom considered publishing it as a CD-ROM, but she realised that it would never have had the effect that it has had as a book, it would never have become so famous. ‘It’s all about editing’, she explains: the enormous amount of content was given a certain sequence. The aim was to tell a story.

When Van der Velden asks how she got the commission, she explains that she was working for the State Printing House (now Sdu Uitgevers) when she met Paul Fentener van Vlissingen, who was then president of SHV. But, she emphasises, it all began much earlier: she went to art school to be a painter but soon realised that she wasn’t good enough and began to eye up the design department. One of her teachers infected her with his love of books and arranged an internship at the State Printing House. She then did an internship with Gert Dumbar, where she discovered that graphic design could also be fun. She learned that as a graphic designer you don’t simply have to be a servant to the client but you can have your own voice. After graduating, she began working at the State Printing House. She worked there for five years and because as a ‘naïve little girl’, as she calls herself, she had difficulty carving out a place for herself, she was given all the ‘leftovers’, which meant that no one paid any attention to her and she could work in complete freedom.

There she made the postage stamp yearbooks: annual surveys of all the PTT’s special postage stamp issues. She shows one and points out the things that were actually ‘not done’ and some of which she would not do any more: page numbers on the inside of the pages, centred text, a mix of different typefaces, images and text that run across pages, etc. ‘I was young and naïve. I had no fear!’ she says, clearly proud of her open-mindedness at that time. The designers of the special stamp issues thought the design was a disaster; the PTT received angry letters. But the book was well received abroad and won a prize. Van der Velden says that he finds it elegant and subtle. Boom reaches for the books she made together with Koolhaas for the Venice Architecture Biennale that he curated. Here she was forced to fall back on the directness and naivety of the postage stamp yearbooks. She had to produce fifteen books in just a few weeks, with the material being added in a chaotic fashion: a kind of live design, she calls it.

Next up for discussion is the book Présent for Renault, printed on very thin aluminium to give it the look and feel of a car. Here too she was given complete freedom. She worked on it mainly at night: ‘If you don’t stop me, I go, like a car actually.’ In fact, she works constantly; her studio is her favourite place in her house. The Renault book brings her to her favourite typefaces: Plantin and Neuzeit S. She says they are always good whether you use them large or small. ‘They’re a little heavy. I like that; I’m quite solid myself.’ Van der Velden names a few other fonts. Also great, she says, but she can get along just fine with these two . They suit her: ‘It’s just the same with clothes; I always wear a skirt and a twin set, in black or navy blue.’

She suddenly sounds very engaged again when the passport for Europe that she designed for The Image of Europe, OMA’s Europe project from 2001, is placed on the table. She makes an impassioned plea for Europe and believes it’s time for a new campaign for Europe: EU is YOU! The discussion then turns to the manifesto she wrote for the book. She believes that books are more important than ever. In a book you can arrange information to create a cohesive and fixed whole, in sharp contrast to the dynamic but fragmented internet. For her a book is a means to achieve a particular goal, to call attention to something, to tell a story. A book is an object that demands time and concentration.

At the end of the evening there’s time for questions from the audience. Someone asks: what is the role of editing in your work? Very important. Boom is often involved in the entire process, including determining the content: text, photography, the ordering of the information. For the Renault book, for example, she had the idea of asking the German journalist Niklas Maak to write an essay. She emphasises that making a book is teamwork and that she never follows a strategy and prefers to have a lot of time: ‘If someone hurries me along, I begin to slow down.’ She calls herself a bad designer, but a good art director, who always works from an idea. It’s clear that her clients give her enormous freedom, a freedom she can now afford herself – ‘I turn down 50 per cent of commissions’ ­– but which she has also enforced by going her one way, step by step.

Text Lotte Haagsma

Thursday Night at Het Nieuwe Instituut
Kristoffer Li & Kristoffer Halse Sølling

Thursday Night Live! is a weekly programme of lectures, screenings and discussions on architecture, design and digital culture. Developments and critical insights are discussed by thinkers, designers and makers from the Netherlands and abroad.