Interview: Irma Boom

The latest issue of Volume marks a special jubilee: it is the twenty-fifth issue designed by Irma Boom – the award-winning Dutch book designer whose work for clients such as Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Ferrari has earned her the highest regard in the profession. On February 24th 2012, Volume sat down with Irma Boom to discuss among other things her practice, her work with Volume, and her unexpected love for iPads.

Arjen Oosterman: “First I was wondering if you could introduce your studio since you’re not an employee of Volume, but have your own office.”
Irma Boom: “Yes, I’m an external designer – which is a very important detail. [Laughs] The office consists of three people: two assistants, Julia Neller and Sanne van de Goor and me; I make Volume with an ex-assistant, Sonja Haller. The first issues were made with a former student of mine Natascha Chandani (issues 6 to 10) and from issue 11 until now with Sonja. This is the only magazine we do and we’re very proud of working with Volume and Archis.”

Photo: Theo Krijgsman

AO: “So what do you do then outside of working with Volume?”
IB: “We are book designers. I’m in love with anything that has to do with books – to design, to create, and be a part of the content of a book, to be a part of the editorial board from the very beginning of a book project. Volume is an exception; here we act only as the designers. Recently we started doing other things as well, including the complete house style and identity for the Rijksmuseum, which is an enormous, interesting and super fantastic job. The museum will reopen next year. It’s a challenging job because it forces us to think in another way. We are also making the ‘decoration’ (I hate that word) [Laughs] for a tunnel that will run under Amsterdam Central Station, designed by Benthem Crouwel. The tunnel is for pedestrians and bicycles and runs underneath the station from the centre to the IJ. We were asked to design a strip of 30 centimeters wide in a tunnel 110 meters long. And it’s like when I’m designing books, when someone asks me to make a book of 48 pages, I make a book of 800. So that’s the same with the tunnel, now we’re doing the whole tunnel – an enormous project. Another project that Hella Jongerius, Gabriel Lester, Rem Koolhaas, Louise Schouwenberg and I won is to redesign the UN Headquarters’ interior of the North Delegate Lounge. I’m a graphic designer, and normally we are not asked to work on an interior project, but we are designing a curtain, our first curtain ever. To think on another scale and with different conditions is interesting. And again it’s something huge, 34 meters long and 7 meters high. It’s very important for me to do something different besides dealing with these regular graphic design questions.”

AO: “You just explained that Volume is the only magazine that you’re doing. To what extent does it differ from your book design?”
IB: “We’ve now done twenty-five issues. It’s hard to believe. It’s really a jubilee then! [Laughs] I remember when we started with Volume we approached it as a kind of glossy publication. We (Natascha and I) decided to only use one typeface, Garamond, for the inside of the magazine. The size of the magazine was A4 and we couldn’t change it. We made the type always fit to the pages; so no unused paper or white space. We wanted it to look like a magazine magazine. There was a change in the typeface when we decided to do the design completely in our office. The first issue Sonja and I did together was the Cities Unbuilt issue. We switched to a matte paper for the cover but still kept the size A4. Volume 12 was the Al Manakh and for the special issue we used the size 17 x 24 cm. This was a final breakthrough – to change the size, and with the Ambition issue we changed the size again to 20 x 26.5 cm. Size matters, even small changes! It wasn’t a big change but it produced a totally different quality, it transformed it into more of a book-like size. We had the discussion that the content of the magazine was so interesting, so valuable, it wasn’t really magazine content, it was something you could refer back to. It was somehow a hybrid between a book and a magazine. I think people with subscriptions hold on to Volume. From the Ambition issue on we’ve been using a grey board cover and matte white paper for the interior. We also changed the typeface to Neuzeit. At that point Volume changed from a regular magazine into more of a contemporary magazine. We left the clichés behind.”

Brendan Cormier: “Yes, it really felt at that point that the magazine shifted to a journal, while still retaining some magazine qualities.”
IB: “Yes, for me that was quite important and also the switch to the new typeface Neuzeit reinforced this. And now we use Replica. Neuzeit is my all-time favorite typeface, because it is so limited, it has book and heavy, no italics, no light, very simple. But I understand if you have a magazine, and you always have to underline or skew to make it italic, it’s not really handy so we had to change the typeface to another typeface with more possibilities and it works very well for Volume.”

AO: “And for the Privatize issue there was another typeface that was, let’s say, re-introduced.”
IB: “Yes for this issue only, to create a structure where you had a ‘Privatize’ portion, and a ‘Volume’ portion, we used Times New Roman on the ‘Privatize’ pieces. I prefer to limit ourselves to one typeface, but when there’s a specific content reason will we consider a second typeface.”

BC: “And why Times New Roman?”
IB: “It’s like when we used Garamond, it’s a kind of generic serif typeface. And we had the feeling we should use something serifed. Of all the serifed fonts, this is one of the most generic and recognizable.”

AO: “Is that your own artistic feeling about it, or is it your idea of the reader’s expectation?”
IB: “I think without knowing the typeface you feel it is familiar. And Times New Roman, it’s extremely legible and readable, so it was the first choice.”

BC: “I see it as a funny contrast. Times New Roman is a default typeface for word processors, and so it’s what many small business owners would use to print out their documents, which fits to our theme of private initiative. But whereas they would be using basic desktop printers, this is professionally printed and (sometimes) on expensive paper stock.”
IB: “Yes, but it’s also very well designed. It’s a very good typeface, it was made for the newspaper the Times; it’s a very sharp and efficient typeface. Plantin, for instance, would be too heavy and totally different in experience; too formal.”

AO: “Is your first take on an assignment your choice of typeface?”
IB: “If we design books, then the first question is: what’s the issue? I start having conversations about the project. I always work from an idea, a strong concept. Simultaneously I work on models, so the prototypes come first. A book is a bit of architecture; I also call it building books. The choice of the typeface comes last. And then, in this time of the internet there are already so many books that look like a pdf. So for me it’s essential to escape the pdf and take advantage of the three-dimensional quality of a book. The book as an object: the dimensions, the paper, the weight, etc. That’s the reason not to use machine-cut paper, because any machine-cut paper book is too heavy. A book is a tool to have in your hands (I dislike coffee table books!). Volume 30 has different kinds of paper, something a pdf wouldn’t show. Lots of books nowadays and printed material could go digital, because they already look like a pdf. I want to make a difference by experimenting with materials, sizes, and weight. The cover material we’ve been using for a while now, enhances this idea. Escaping the pdf and finding a legitimization to print is something I‘m investigating all the time. For the Project Japan book we used a grey board for the cover, and used recycled paper as a reference to the original Metabolist manifesto. But to find a reason that a book has to be printed, that’s for me a really important issue. I am happy about the new developments with iPads and tablets and the effect it has had on book design. It gives me space to work on the redefinition of the printed book and use the non-linear structures that new media have introduced.”

AO: “You stress the material aspect of printing and making books, but how do you relate to this strong tendency in the Netherlands to take part in editorial design – where the designer plays an active role in the contribution of ideas to the book.”
IB: “For me it’s one of the most important roles for the designer. I worked at the Government Printing and Publishing Office for five years. The content was given and there was no question – a pile of photographs and a pile of text and our task was simply to put it together. Always machine-cut paper: 135 grams. There was no role in questioning anything – it was merely facilitating just to get it done. It was my first job, very good to learn skills and get some professional experience, but I realized that that way of facilitating is not very inspiring and not what I expected for being a designer with ambition.”

AO: “Speaking of editorial design, or the autonomous contribution of the designer to the end result – how do these choices relate to purpose or explicitly the reader? In your choices, is the reader leading or is there another entity that is first?”
IB: “I think if you’re a designer, at a certain point you have to make choices. If something is good, it is good for you and me. Basically I would say you should ignore who you are designing for because immediately you start compromising. Can I talk about the cover? I think Volume, so you and me, should have a stronger cover policy. With Volume 30 I’m really happy about the cover. I think it’s important for a magazine to have something recognizable and visible. If I go to a bookstore, I want to see Volume. It needs to be visible, so there’s no excuse not working on that and we should not compromise on the design of the cover anymore. And that’s also important for me, if you print a book or a magazine, you make it for spreading information, and so it has to go into the world. That’s why I hate typical artists’ books – they make one or two copies, and that’s it. A book is an industrially made piece and should be sold and read – and the cover is one of the tools to get that done.”

Debate: WIJkonomie Tarwewijk at the NAi