A few days before Irma Boom came to Portugal to give a talk I asked a friend — and true Irma Boom fan — if she was worth seeing. It's a bit like asking someone if Feist, for example, is good live (I recently did see her live, and she totally is), or if I should be happy with listening to the albums at home (I'm the proud owner of just one Irma Boom book, her 1998 Vitra Work Spirit catalogue). My friend said she was definitely worth the 3-hour train ride to Porto (Boom would speak at ESAD, a design school just outside Portugal's second biggest city, as part of the Personal Views talk series). Plus, Boom rarely talks in public, my friend said — so I knew I was in for something special.
Personal Views is itself something worth talking about: it's a world-class series of talks by renowned graphic designers and educators promoted by ESAD since 2003 which, as a Portuguese design critic wrote last year, managed over the years to prove there is an audience for graphic design in the country; the school's small auditorium fills up entirely for each of the talks, and at times the public even overflows into other rooms.
On June 6th, and despite the bus-load of design students and professors from Lisbon's Fine Art School, everyone managed to get a seat and indulge in over two hours of Irma Boom's books, stories, confessions and everything she managed to share with us until she grew tired of talking.
The very nature of a talk, or lecture — and a design talk is no exception — is one of sharing. We expect to gain something from the person on stage when we see her "live" and "in the flesh", as much as we expect to enjoy a concert or a show by our favourite artist. The success of that talk — as with so much else in life — depends on the balance between our expectations and our experience of it. That day, Irma Boom not only met my expectations — she surpassed them. Sitting at a table on the right-hand side of the small stage, next to a pile of books, Boom started her talk by reading aloud a list of things she considered fundamental in a book. A long, almost never-ending list, which became a kind of litany of verbs and nouns and adjectives that she seemed to need to get out of her system, so she could be ready — and get us ready — for what was to follow. Over her head hung a (I was told auction-style) video camera, and on the projected image on the wall, to her right, we could see a portion of the table in front of her, not — as could be expected from a design talk — slide one of a Keynote/Powerpoint-style presentation. She then started to bring the books, one by one, from the pile into the image on the wall, live and in real time. Assuming a posture she admits to be both wrong and frequent, she had her back too often arched, her head down and facing her hands — hence on camera; her hands, constantly moving, on and off camera. Boom did not want to call our attention to her, but rather to her books: that was what had brought her there in the first place. If the design world has its anti-heros, she is surely one of them.
Considering the main goals of her work as a book designer to "explore the meaning and significance of the book" and to "give another life to a story", Boom admitted only to accept jobs where she can be part of the editorial board of a given project, and where she has the complete trust of her commissioner. She will not be satisfied with being just the "form giver" of the books she works on, the person who will put other people's images and words together in pages sandwiched between a cover and back cover. That simply won't do it for her, and she shows it to us on camera, live and in 3D. With a career that spans just over 20 years and 250 books, today she is perhaps the best example of a designer who fully understands the book as an object, as something that has a physical, three-dimensional presence in our lives.
All of her books are unique, almost precious objects, but Boom is the first to reveal their true nature: she despises handmade books, and insists her work is always the result of an industrial process. From the SHV "Fat" book (her well-known 2500-page, 11cm-thick, stainless-steel-bound mammoth of a book on which she worked on for over five years) to her three-day-fast small book jobs for Rem Koolhaas' OMA, from a much criticised stamp book to "butterfly porno" stamps and the exquisite miniatures she uses as sketches (the ones MoMA wants to get in order to complete her entire body of work, something it has been collecting over the years — but she won't give them to anyone), I would say everyone in that room felt hypnotised by Boom's hands, as they handled many, many pieces of her work, almost of herself. Her hands held the books, opened them, closed them, picked them up, put them down, pushed them aside, pulled them back, leafed through their pages, revealed their paper, their spine, their very existence in the room.
On that day, Irma showed (with all due respect to Eric Gill) things, not pictures of things. That made all the difference to what she does as a designer, and to the way she talks about what she does. But it also meant everything to us, who had the privilege of sharing the same three-dimensional space with her that afternoon.
Irma Boom's talk will soon be available on video soon on the Personal Views website, as other talks by other designers. The Personal Views 2007/2008 season will end with Ian Anderson's talk on June 20th. Photo credit: Luísa Ribas