I’m in Rome at the American Academy. I have a column to do. I’m lost in a sea of beauty, despairing of a story—until I meet Irma Boom. An academy fellow and internationally famous Dutch graphic designer, Boom makes books, or more accurately, “builds” them; she makes model after model in her process, like an architect. Her books are in the permanent collection at MOMA, and in July, Taschen will publish her latest: Elements of Architecture, which puts together 15 books that Boom designed for Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale.

I went to hear Boom’s talk, “Boom on Books,” at MAXXI, Italy’s national museum of contemporary art and architecture in Rome. What is a book? “A book is a story, an edited bound stack of paper, a frozen moment in time,” she said. “It never changes, unlike digital.” The permanence of print books suits Boom, who says that she’s “rigid” but is always looking for creative freedom and that she has defied authority and convention throughout her long career of making more than 300 books.

What Boom does with books breaks all the rules. She designs them without page numbers (“Without page numbers, you discover other things that you were not looking for,” she says); she designs them without ink, without text (as in her homage to artist Ellsworth Kelly), or with text that spills over into the margins. She makes “fat” books of thousands of pages; she makes books so tiny they fit in the palm of a hand. She doesn’t think of an audience. “If it’s good,” she says, “the audience will appear.”

Boom works with what she calls “commissioners,” never clients. “When the commissioner talks, I see the book,” she says. “If I don’t see it, there is no book.” She thinks of possibilities, never problems, and is always looking for inspiration. “Andy Warhol,” she notes, “was inspired by The Last Supper.”

Boom’s career out of art school (she studied painting) began at the Dutch Government and Printing Office, where she landed the plum assignment of making a stamp book. “The Netherlands is famous for design policy,” she tells me, “and the very best people were enlisted to design stamps: painters, architects, artists.” The series of stamp books, which included the background story of the stamp designs, started in 1970; Boom did the years 1987–1988. Her experimental style (translucent paper, text crossing multiple pages, no punctuation) brought an outcry and hate mail but established her as a force.

“It was before the internet and involved much image research,” Boom says. The book took five years and, in what would be a significant feature of her work, ended up being several hundred pages long. “It was supposed to be 96,” she says. It was also then that she began making models.

In 1991, Boom was commissioned by SHV Holdings, the Dutch trading company, to produce a book that was to be a tool for clients. She says that when considering a commission, she needs to know what the function of the book is. She also only takes on projects she believes she will enjoy. “I always think, what’s in it for me?” she adds. Boom was given her freedom, and SHV Think Book made her international career. Published at more than 2,000 pages, it is a narrative history of the company.

Ferrari contacted Boom to create a book of engines in 2002, and she says she thought, “Here they ask a female Dutch designer to do this book; we don’t even have Ferraris in the Netherlands.” She adds that when the Ferrari people arranged to pick her up, she asked how she would know them. “You will hear it,” they said. Boom laughs. “The sound of the engine was so loud, so fantastic, I thought, I will do whatever you ask!”

Every book tells a story, according to Boom, but her books have particularly amazing backstories. The textile artist Sheila Hicks commissioned Boom, and they worked together without a deadline for four years (Boom made more than 30 models of the book) and without a publisher, until Bard became interested. “Academic publishers are conservative,” Boom says. “They have definite ideas.”

The Hicks book had no cover image, no title. “How will people know to pick it up?” the publisher asked. Boom’s response was that a cover image restricted the book to people who were interested in the subject and that Hicks should be discovered by all. Hicks fired Boom and told her she would never work with her again. Boom kept working anyway. “Now we are best friends,” she says. Sheila Hicks: Weaving as Metaphor, published in 2006, won the gold medal as the Most Beautiful Book in the World at the 2007 Leipzig Book Fair and is now in its fifth printing.

Chanel hired Boom to design a book for its 2013 exhibition in Paris. No.5 Culture Chanel was produced without ink: the book is completely white; its pages are embossed and their edges are rough. It must be touched to be experienced. “The company gave me carte blanche,” Boom says. “And I took complete advantage.”

The paper book is more relevant than ever, Boom insists. Paper books have qualities that can’t be duplicated digitally. Size is irrelevant with a digital book, for one thing, and size figures prominently in Boom’s work.

Boom makes miniature models of her books (“I have hundreds and am very attached to them,” she says) and always wanted to publish a miniature book, which no publisher saw as practical. Boom produced a minibook for her retrospective in Amsterdam in 2010, and a slightly updated version for her 2013 Paris show. Irma Boom: The Architecture of the Book is an 800-page miniature catalogue of her work. “I take it everywhere,” she says, holding it out for me to touch when we sit together in the salon of the academy. It is tiny with a red faux-leather cover, and its pages and cover are well thumbed. “I always have it with me,” she says—“my book and my red lipstick,” which she applies before she gets up to leave.

Boom’s time in Rome at the Vatican library was about discovery. She worked with manuscripts, “which I never really liked,” she says. But, she adds, “with a handwritten manuscript, anything is possible: there are no restrictions. And I believe everything has been done before, so I wanted to find, in the past, what I do now. For instance, the manuscripts have no page numbers.”

Boom is all about the work. When the German publisher Hatje Cantz wanted a catalogue with 180 pages, she said it was impossible; it needed to be longer. Hatje Cantz said it would only pay for 180 pages. Boom said fine, and Everything Design was produced at 800 pages.

Boom is serious about her work, yet lighthearted. At the museum talk, when the projection screen froze, she looked up. Deadpan, she faced the audience and said, “This is why I love books: they always work.” ■