On the frontiers: Jane Thompson, Design Luminary

Alexandra Lange, Loeb Fellow ’14 invited Jane Thompson for a moderated discussion of her design trajectory. Image Credit: Caroline James

Transforming Faneuil Hall into a market space that brings people together around the culture of food; programming miles of Houston’s waterfront in partnership with city officials and flood management; redesigning Grand Central Station district, viewing the whole streetscape as a site. The work of designer Jane Thompson resists easy classification. She worked as a curator and editor, completed important research on the Bauhaus, was founding editor of Industrial Design Magazine, and co-founded Design Research, an iconic Cambridge store that revolutionized design in retail. Later with her partner Ben Thompson at Benjamin Thompson & Associates, where she was director of planning and programming, she managed projects of tremendous complexity and richness.

Thompson became the second woman to receive the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Her trajectory–not a straight and direct road–was rather a winding path. A true Renaissance woman, Thompson took her audience at the GSD on a journey of her design thinking recently. Loeb Fellow ’14 Alexandra Lange, design historian and architecture critic, moderated the discussion at the Harvard GSD.

Thompson characterized her design career as a series of “entrepreneurial acts,” in which she innovated and identified needs before a client defined them. As a fresh graduate in art history, Thompson set her eyes on MoMA, where Philip Johnson had just established the Department of Architecture and Design, the first-ever department of its kind in a museum. While women hired at MoMA were often shuffled into secretarial pools, Johnson hired her. MoMA was a place “I loved and where I learned something every single day–it profiled what this post-war profession was going to be.” During her first summer, Mies van der Rohe was in the office, working with Johnson for the first exhibition of his work at MoMA in the fall of 1947. Marcel Breuer often dropped by. When her mentor, writer and curator Ada Louise Huxtable, took a sabbatical, Thompson was catapulted to assistant curator for a year. Her early experiences demonstrate her sensibility to situate herself at the vanguard while having the voracity to lean in.

Design Research, Cambridge, MA, Brattle Street

Another turning point occurred upon her moving to Vermont, where she contributed her design thinking to a context and issue. In her town, she noticed that there were many kids, but no high school. She mobilized the community to form a Union District in order to secure funding for the school. She advocated a modern design and helped create the curriculum, styled upon the Bauhaus, combining arts within the pedagogy. The town chose architect Ben Thompson, one of the founders with Walter Gropius of The Architects Collaborative, to design the school. Images of the interior of the school library show why it is still beloved some 50 years later.

Mount Anthony District High School, Bennington, VT, 1964
Mount Anthony District High School, Bennington, Vermont, 1964

It is in Jane Thompson’s work as urban planner where her innovative spirit has left indelible marks on major US cities—Chicago, Boston, New York, and Houston. In 1987, for one of the biggest and most complicated projects in terms of scale and number of stakeholders, Thompson co-designed and executed the new plan for the Grand Central Terminal district. At the time of the commission, Grand Central had fallen from its glory days as hub, and the district was overbuilt and lacked city parks. Thompson remembers, “We were into alliances and consortiums. It’s a very different sort of relationship. One of my partners asked, ‘where are you building, there’s no site?’ I replied to him, ‘the whole thing’s a site!’” Diagrams and models demonstrated how the entire underground as well as above-ground area could be harnessed to create a lively urban realm.

Thompson said the urban planning projects “expanded my ability to see both in space and time the potential.” Whether repurposing Faneuil Hall, or reclaiming Grand Central Station, Thompson demonstrates how design deserves consideration at all scales. The latter proposal even designed all the news kiosks, to give dignity to the people distributing media. And how about the beloved lights bedecking Grand Central’s façade at night? That was the work of diplomacy with many neighboring building owners.

Alexandra Lange, who had recently co-authored Thompson’s book on the Design Research firm, reflected how Thompson’s work started from what people want from their cities and homes. “How do you relate to the programming and design, the look and what people do there?” asked Lange. Thompson replied, “It’s like being a psychiatrist. You have to listen.” Given that there are many voices and people involved in the design process, Thompson said, “The interface in design is strategy: knowing what you know, and learning how to transmit the information, all while having the enthusiasm.”

Asked what advice she would give to a young designer, Thompson replied, “You make your own luck—decide what you want to know, and who knows it. From a career point of view, you have to know yourself, and position yourself next to or in contact with sources of knowledge. If there’s an architect you want to work for, wax the floors. You can get in the door and stay.” Her advice echoed the ethos of her life, from her early days at MoMA, where she jockeyed to be in the right place at the right time.

Her path demonstrates how at best, design can be a peripatetic discipline. Her work is testament to the profound difference it makes when designers build partnerships as part of the design process. Thompson’s legacy needs to be documented more fully, as her design contributions give us a more accurate portrayal of the process of managing complexity. Thompson said, “I think why we like design is that it’s so challenging to everything you have. It makes you stronger to do it. It’s really satisfying because you get something done that is outside of yourself, and a contribution.”

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