When it comes to identifying which objects are doomed to extinction in the digital age, one of the likeliest contenders is the printed book. Anything whose function can be fulfilled as – or more – efficiently by a digital application risks becoming obsolescent in design’s version of the Darwinian process of natural selection. Atlases, telephones, newspapers and many other once-familiar objects are imperilled, because apps already perform the same tasks better: by being more accurate, convenient, reliable or whatever. How can physical books hope to compete against their digital foes when they are heavier and clunkier with whopping carbon footprints caused by consuming huge quantities of paper and (possibly toxic) ink, plus the fossil fuel required to ship them from country to country?
Daunting though that sounds, the Dutch designer Irma Boom has found a solution by designing physical books which look and feel so intriguing, surprising and seductive that they seem much more compelling than ebooks – less cumbersome and environmentally damaging though the latter may be.
Boom achieves this by obsessing over every element of design – including the textures and scents of her books, as well as their appearance – to enhance the readers’ experience of engaging with them and their understanding of the contents. She designed a book on the Dutch artist Steven Aalders to be made in exactly the same size as one of his paintings. A history of the Dutch company SHV sports page edges that spell the words of a poem when read from right to left and depict a field of tulips if read from the left. The page edges of a monograph on the US textile designer Sheila Hicks were hacked with a circular saw to evoke the selvages of Hicks’s work. One book was printed on coffee filter paper; another was infused with the smell of soup. Boom also enjoys experimenting with extremes of scale. Elements of Architecture (2018), a book on Rem Koolhaas’s work as artistic director of the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2014, weighs in at 2,600 pages. By contrast, my favourite books by Boom – those she has produced about her own work – are tiny.
So far, there are two volumes in the series: Irma Boom: Biography in Books and Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book, which were published in 2010 and 2013, respectively, and include the designer’s accounts of developing all of the books she designed up to those dates. The first edition is 5 cm × 4 cm × 2.5 cm with 704 pages. The second is slightly bigger at 5.5 cm × 4.5 cm × 3 cm and 800 pages. Boom modelled them on the miniature books she makes at the beginning of each design project, so she can flick through the pages to check whether the sequencing of the text and images is correct.
The temptation to flick through both Irma Boom books is irresistible and forges an immediate emotional bond that is heightened by the size of the type. Both editions are printed in one of Boom’s favourites typefaces, Plantin, in 5.5 point, roughly half its usual size. Just about legible, the tiny type encourages you to peer closely at the pages.
Someone may eventually design ebooks that are as beguiling and ingenious as these. Let’s hope they do, though Boom herself shows no sign of flagging. A third edition of Irma Boom is to be published later this year. Tentatively titled Boom on Books, it will include her work of the last five years. Just as the second book in the series was slightly larger than its predecessor, the third will be bigger still – though far smaller than other books.
First published in Issue 200