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Irma Loves Colour

Irma Boom’s book “Colour-Based on Nature” presented now in Milan is one idea executed precisely.  Beautiful and intriguing, she has yet again proven herself to be the queen of book design.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 20-04-2012

Colour seems to be the fashionable buzzword amongst designers these days.  Projects, books and exhibitions are curated to explore its history as well as its contemporary limitations given the constraints of the production process.

Currently in Milan Thomas Eyck is presenting “Colour-Based on Nature” by Irma Boom.  It is a book with seven accompanying wallpapers produced in cooperation by Eijffinger.  The prints are colour diagrams based on UNESCO nature sites from each continent.

But Irma Boom doesn’t work to be on trend.  She has been passionate about colour since back in 1987 when she presented the conceptual annual report for the Dutch Ministry of Culture using colour to analyse results.

“Colour does seem to have become fashionable,” Boom says, “but it has always been an essential ingredient of my work.”

It wasn’t, however, until 2004 that Boom decided to make “Based on Art” her first book entirely devoted to the topic.

Ever since 1913, the Royal Printing and Binding Society (KVGO) has been publishing an annual Christmas volume documenting the industry’s developments.

“It is a prestigious assignment,” Boom says.  “The association does the work for free to give the book as a gift to their clients.”

When they first approached Boom to participate, they suggested a subject that did not interest her so she declined the offer.  “A few years later they came back to me and asked what my idea was and I said I’d love to do something on colour, which is closely related to the print industry,” she explains.

To keep it original, Boom opted to make colour diagrams of 80 artists over 5 centuries.

“Art and colour has been written about thousands of times,” she says, “so I needed a new approach.   I did a lot of research and finally decided to made colour diagrams based on the works of art.”

The result is a combination of full-colour diagrams juxtaposed with flat specially mixed inks bound into a volume with perforated uncut pages.  Each page has to be hand-ripped open to reveal the content, the unexpected colour diagrams, and the names of the artworks each page represents.

It’s an intriguing and quite beautiful idea, but mostly it is the very tangible quality of flipping through the pages of colour that makes this book so magical.  Each full colour page if even divided into strips divided by uncut perforated edges so you can rip off swabs to reveal different colours underneath and make your own book.

“And because I have ordered the artists in alphabetical order, it means the colour combinations presented are quite coincidental and surprisingly beautiful,” Boom says. 

Strangely, the book flopped in the Netherlands.  “Nobody liked it,” Boom says.  “Nobody understood it.”

But when it was released internationally it became a hit selling all 5000 copies within three months. 

Even Hollywood took notice.  Colourcalm licensed the idea and turned it into an animation that was used by airlines and international hotel chains.  Michael Nyman even wrote an original 6 second score to accompany it.

“The interesting aspect of the DVD is that you can alter the order and make it chronological rather than alphabetical,” Boom says.  “For art historians it was fascinating because they could see the colour palette move from darks to lights over time.”

With art historian Nicole Ex, Boom produced a wallpaper range based on the colour diagrams.  One of them, based on Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, is still available in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

It was also Ex’s idea to use this same concept to analyse nature.  So in 2005 Boom set about researching UNESCO sites to create a graphic exploration of the colours found in them.

“I used the same approach and analysis as I did for the book about art,” Boom says, “but the nature book has different colours - more greens and browns.”

Colours are selected from sites ranging from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to the Jungfrau in Switzerland.  From every continent UNESCO sites are chosen and converted into colour diagrams, and again specially mixed colours were made.

Maps and graphs in the back of the book reveal that 105 countries have UNESCO heritage sites listed and 35, mostly in Africa, have none. 

Boom completed the book in 2005, but it was never produced.  For seven years she kept it saved.  “The thing about both books is that they look simple, but to get every colour perfect and every edge just right takes an enormous amount of time and effort,” Boom says.  “And because it is so simple, every detail has to be perfect.” All the involved parties -  Tetterode for the ink, Lenoirschuring for the printing, Hexspoor for the binding, and Alwin van Steijn, who took care of the details, had to work painstakingly on every small detail to make sure the final product was perfect.”

It was only in the last year that Boom started to rethink the project.  “Some people started to show some interest, but I always remembered that Thomas Eyck was the first to show genuine interest.”

She approached Eyck and he was thrilled to collaborate.  “And it was of course thrilling for me too,” says Boom.  “He presents in Milan which is such a design platform and it gives me the opportunity to reach a new audience.  Thomas really knows how to make things happen and bring them into the world.”

“Colour-Based on Nature” is currently showing at Spazio Rossana Orlandi in Milan for the 51st Salone Internazionale del Mobile.

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