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A Rare Interview With The Late Jane Thompson, Who Brought European Design To The U.S.

If you've bought anything from Marimekko, you have this woman to thank.

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Influential writer, planner, and retailer Jane Thompson died Tuesday, Metropolis magazine reports. In addition to shaping modern industrial design criticism as founder of I.D. magazine, Thompson and her husband built the modern "lifestyle" design retail model, introducing dozens of European brands—like Marimekko and Alvar Aalto—to American consumers in their store Design/Research. In 2010, she won a National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement—like winning Best Picture at the Oscars.

Twenty Over Eighty, a recent book by Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016) featured an interview with Thompson about her life's work, excerpts of which are re-printed below with permission.

What was your first job?
I went to the Museum of Modern Art right out of college. I had spent a summer as an intern researching in the theater and dance department for a production I was making for my thesis at Vassar. I decided that that was where I wanted to be: this is modern, this is new, this is everything. I was raised modern—not because of my parents, but because of the imaginative people that I came in contact with.

In those days, if you wanted to work at MoMA and you weren’t already a curator, you had to get in through the secretarial pool. During my senior year, I studied shorthand for six months, then I went to MoMA to apply. They gave me a test and said, "Okay, you’re in." Then they gave me my first assignment: "There’s a man down the hall who wants you to take a letter, his name is Philip Johnson." I didn’t know Philip Johnson; I didn’t know much about architecture. In any case, I went and I did the letter and I guess it was okay, because the next day he asked me to come to the architecture department to be the secretary. To be a fly on the wall there and see everything that was happening—everybody who came and went, the exhibitions that were being made—it was an absolutely great education.

Did you feel any trepidation, being thrust into the design world?
I wasn’t smart enough to be scared. I was just curious, and it was a very nice group. At the time, Philip Johnson decided to build a modern house, by Marcel Breuer, in the garden. He built the house and then assigned me to be the docent. It was a formative experience. People came in and said, "What’s this about? Open space, no walls? No doors on the bedroom?" Well, there’s a reason for that, and let’s think about it. It made me realize how boxed in we were by our architecture, and if you’d never seen it before, modern was really weird. But people warmed up to it, very enthusiastically. Open space just makes you feel a lot better, doesn’t it? It lifts your horizons.

What was it like being a leading woman in a predominantly male field?
I never saw a woman in a design office in all those years. Except maybe Betty Reese, who was a PR person for Raymond Loewy. Design was amazingly devoid of women. Mary Roche, the editor of Charm, asked me to talk about this in an article titled "Working in a Man’s World," but I have to say I’ve never had any problems dealing with a totally male population, at any level or job.

Why do you think your experience was different, in that it was relatively free of difficulties?
I think because I was talking about things men wanted to talk about: the magazine, the field. I met them on their level, and I knew a few things they didn’t. No one was aware that women were having a problem breaking in because they just weren’t around; the women’s magazines all had women staff concentrated on domestic design.

Later I did take a position on women with respect to design. Women know more than men, and they can see more than men, but they must apply their senses: their sense of family, and their sense of relationships. Because these count in the way you design.

How has your position as an outsider—a critic, a woman, a self-described "architect without a portfolio"—informed your work?
I prefer that role, and I’ve played it all along. The outsider perspective is something most architects don’t have. That’s what we did with the magazine: we showed products and things that we loved that designers didn’t know about. For example, when we wrote about pots and pans, we didn’t write about how pretty they were, but we said this one has good, even heating. And the handle works, too. We evaluated the actual performance. We didn’t do it scientifically, but we used the damn thing.

Education has been a consistent thread throughout your life, from your interest in Gropius and the Bauhaus to your work in schooling in Vermont and the Aspen International Design Conference. What are your thoughts on the evolving state of design education?
Because there are so many teachers in my family, early on I got into questions of how you think about creativity, how your mind works. In design, you use your hands and therefore you’re considered a tradesman. In art, you use your brain and therefore you’re an artist. And that’s just totally wrong! Your hand is the biggest conductor of information to your brain. If you feel the material you’re not a tradesman, you’re infusing your brain with the material you’re going to use. Your senses are important.

All the education that I’ve done—for the school in Vermont, and in studying the Bauhaus—was about sensory training: you’re going to touch this material, you’re going to form it, figure it out. That’s how you’re going to understand your medium. You can communicate with color, and with form, but not if you aren’t used to using your eyes.

What advice would you give yourself at the beginning of your career?
Wake up sooner. You think you can take another 10 years because you’ve got all your life, but it’ll get away from you. You need those years to figure out what you’re going to do and get started. Learning something early gives you a sense of competence, control of some sort. You are learning how to deal with your environment, with what you’re making, with people and how they live their lives. There’s so much distraction.

Now it’s a visual world, but only if you’re looking at something and figuring it out and putting it in your brain. That’s my feeling. Get somebody interested, be an apprentice—it’s the way you discover yourself. You and yourself by testing many different things.

What are your biggest motivators?
I find longevity proves something. Accomplishing any change in a city—other than a developer coming in with a billion dollars and ripping everything down—really making it work, takes long-term energy. The long-term aspect lets me think much more deeply about what truly needs to be done. That’s been the scope of my career. People are so limited in their ideas of what they’re capable of. You have to make a battle plan for everything you’re doing in order to get through all the obstacles. And there are a goddamn lot of obstacles.

Twenty Over Eighty is available from Amazon.

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