Architecture of the book

Author: Eva Charlton, Graphic Designer

I recently attended Semi Permanent design symposium in Auckland which consists of three jam packed days full of talks from some of the biggest names in the industry – from top creatives of global tech companies such as google and Airbnb to smaller independent designers from around the world.

Irma Boom took the stage on the third day with a presentation that was refreshingly low-fi after 48 hours of back to back high tech presentations. Using her books and a birds eye camera to projected onto the screen, her presentation became a performative combination of dynamic hand gestures and page flipping as she talked through her book designs.

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Boom is a Dutch designer well known for her experimental approach that constantly challenges the conventions of traditional books. She is both prolific and highly respected having designed over 300 boldly original books, and being the only living designer collected by MoMA (Museum of Modern Art, New York). With designs that eschew page numbers, include text that grows in size with every page and a book with no printing at all, Boom requires a lot of trust from her commissioners and expects complete creative freedom.

Her design process is conceptually driven and Boom approaches book design as an architect would a building, considering the entire landscape of the book and in doing so she creates unique, tactile experiences. A strong believer in the democracy of books, Boom embraces mass production to ensure her creations remain accessible to everyone.

“I compare my work to architecture. I don’t build villas, I build social housing. The books are industrially made and they need to be made very well. I am all for industrial production. I hate one-offs. On one book you can do anything, but if you do a print run, that is a challenge. It’s never art. Never, never, never.” – Irma Boom, Semi Permanent, NZ, 2018


Two books truly stood out to me in her presentation: Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor and Based on Art.

Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor

Irma boom considers Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor her best book. The outside is almost completely white, portraying the artist’s textiles solely through textures. The page edges were hacked with a circular saw to evoke the fraying edges of Hicks’s textile work and the cover is embossed with what looks like one of Sheila’s tightly weaved pieces.

Much to the publisher’s dismay, Irma was insistent that she did not want to include an image of Sheila textiles on the front cover and she had to fight ensure the book stayed true to her concept.

Despite the publishers doubts the book is extremely successful and is now in third edition.

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Based on Art

The book Based on Art  is a celebration of colour and printing in which 80 unique colour diagrams of 80 artists over five centuries were created. These diagrams are juxtaposed with full pages of flat, specially mixed inks, with the vibrant patterns only being revealed once perforations are torn open.This project was so well received that wallpaper and textile ranges have since been created from the colour diagrams.

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Irma boom presenting at Semi Permanent 2018, Auckland

Local innovation

An appreciation of this experimental approach to design is shared by The Dowse Art Museum and can be seen in the books featured in the reading space connecting our current shows Embodied Knowledge and Can Tame Anything. I have selected an artist from each show who uses unconventional design features in their books to further their concepts and create unique experiences for their readers.

The Estate of L. Budd: Catalogue of Extant Works

This book is designed by Narrow Gauge, an Auckland based design studio specialising in art, architecture, education, and culture. The book’s standardised structure is interrupted by hand-drawn markings – arrows, crosses and scrawled words like ‘delete’ – which appear to be early edits to the book. Revealing these elements of the design process echo the way Budd would often expose elements of an artwork’s creation as part of an exhibition. This book pleasingly rejects the idea of the book having to be a pristinely finished object.

The weather, a building and Bad Visual Systems

There is a playful tension that runs through the design of Ruth Buchanan’s books. The weather, a building, designed by New Zealand born designer David Bennewith, takes an unusual format as a small, landscape book. The blue border that runs along the edges of the cover is continued along the edge of each page. Bad Visual Systems designed by HIT BERLIN uses off-kilter typography, canvas-like textured paper and a combination of saturated and soft colours, creating an experience with surprises with every turn of the page.

With so much variation and innovation in book design there’s plenty to be inspired by as a reader, and designer. There’s certainly a wealth of information and options to consider as we begin to work on several new book projects here at The Dowse. We’ll be announcing more details soon; keep an eye on this space.

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