What happened to the book? Book designer Irma Boom (1960) regularly asks herself this question in this digital age. “You now see a lot of books where you think: it would have been better to remain a PDF.”

With the same humor and swagger, Boom entered the famous Vatican library in 2018, when she was artist-in-residence at the Royal Netherlands Institute and the American Academy in Rome, brimming with questions the staff didn’t know the answer to. “For example, she asked: what is your largest book, and what is the smallest? The beginning was traumatic,” says priest Giacomo Cardinali, with a wink.

The exhibition of Irma Boom in the Vatican library in Rome.
Photo Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

After that, Irma Boom would continue to travel back to Rome for years to study manuscripts and books in the Vatican library. “She made us realize that we were only concerned with the content, and not with the form of a book. Thanks to her, we learned a lot about ourselves and our own collection,” says Cardinali, one of the curators of the Irma Boom exhibition at the Vatican Library. This exhibition shows a unique dialogue between Boom’s artistic books and the antique works from the ancient apostolic library in Vatican City.

Also read this interview with Irma Boom from 2017: ‘I want to hear substantive arguments. Otherwise I’ll be furious.’

Irma Boom has produced more than 500 books during her career, all unique pieces with a distinct sensory experience. Her work is part of the permanent collections of MoMA in New York and Center Pompidou in Paris, and now also of the Vatican library, to which she has donated work.


Boom constantly breaks the prevailing convention of the traditional book. When the idea arose to exhibit Irma Boom in the Vatican library, the curators wondered what they could do with so much fresh energy. They delved into their archival work from the futurists op, an avant-garde movement within modernism, from the 1910s and 1920s.

One of Irma Boom’s books on display in the Vatican library.
Photo Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

The Italian Futurists cherished radical ideas about progress, speed and technology, and, like Boom, they also experimented with typography. Texts and words were either placed seemingly haphazardly on the page or cast in whimsical shapes. The exhibition also shows many older beautiful Latin and Arabic examples of such calligrams.

Irma Boom was surprised that an institution with a conservative reputation such as the Vatican has dug up futuristic work for this exhibition. It shows openness towards those who think otherwise. “The manifesto of the futurists went very far,” says Boom. “They wanted one tabula rasa. Everything had to be overhauled, including the Catholic Church.” During her studies, Boom noticed that an evolution is taking place within the Vatican walls: “Many departments of the Vatican library are now led by women. I myself feel part of that change.”

In the Vatican library, Boom discovered that many of the techniques she likes to refer to also appear in age-old books. Not only calligrams, but also illustrations in the text, or entire pages where the ink splashes off the page, without a single paragraph. She was criticized for this herself, says Boom: “But the paragraph was only introduced by Luther, to make books readable for non-intellectuals as well.”

Another attempt to make books more accessible is the pocket book. A ‘modern’ idea? The expo in the Vatican shows the oldest copy, from 1501, with the collected works of the Roman poet Virgil. The collection also contains poems that praise the outdoors and nature. That is exactly what inspired Irma Boom when she designed the catalog for the exhibition for the Guggenheim in New York Country side, the future by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. She made a catalog exactly the same pocket size as the one she had seen in the Vatican. “At first they didn’t like it at the Guggenheim, such a small book,” says Boom. “But when I told them what was behind it, they really liked it.”

Irma Boom, Renault = Present2016.
Photo Gerrit Schreurs

Aluminium paper

A showpiece of the exhibition in the Vatican is her book Renault = Present from 2016. The car brand asked her to make a catalog about a new prototype. The result is a heavy book, printed entirely on aluminum paper, where the pages are reflected on each other with monochrome colors reminiscent of car bodies.

Irma Boom, Mutilationsfrom 2017.
Photo Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana

Mutilations, from 2017, is a tribute to the digitization project of damaged books in the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in The Hague. The cardboard-like pages with photos of the battered books are in turn ‘mutilated’ with notches in the shape of semicircles. When you turn the pages, you hear the pages crack. This way you get the uncomfortable feeling of damaging that book again.

Books are fragile, but Irma Boom is convinced that they will survive: “After all, the book has proved to be one of the most stable means of communication of the past six hundred years.”

Book! Tree!runs until February 25, 2023 in the Apostolic Library of the Vatican. Reservation is required via www.vaticanlibrary.va

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