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Jane Thompson, 89, award-winning designer, urban planner

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe/file 2010

Mrs. Thompson advocated for bringing more women into all aspects of design.

By Globe Staff 

Jane Thompson called herself an “architect without portfolio” — a nod to her lack of formal training in the profession. Yet as a designer and urban planner, an editor and a writer with a sharp eye and precise thinking, she helped transform urban shopping through the Faneuil Hall revitalization 40 years ago and in like-minded reinvigorations across the country.

With a mind that connected the disparate parts of design into a seamless aesthetic, she worked alongside her husband, the architect Benjamin Thompson, whose vision turned a down-on-its-luck Quincy Market into what he dubbed a “festival marketplace,” a concept that was lauded and much-imitated after it opened in the bicentennial year.

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A connoisseur of beauty and elegance in the commonplace, Mrs. Thompson saw the importance of tiny details many grand visionaries might overlook. “Can openers, candlesticks, bedsheets — if they’re well made, they should be displayed,” she once told the Globe.

Mrs. Thompson, who in 2010 received the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award, died of cancer Aug. 22 in her Cambridge home. She was 89.

During her career, she advocated for bringing more women into all aspects of design. Then in 2000, she was the recipient of an honor for which there was no adequate title, when the Finnish government knighted Mrs. Thompson and her husband. The couple’s design contributions included championing fabrics from the Finnish company Marimekko.

“I didn’t ever ask if there was another woman in the Finnish knighthood, but I said, ‘I don’t want to be the wife of a knight. I want to be a knight knight,’ ” she told Boston Magazine in 2014. “Someone came up and said, ‘Sir Lady Jane. That makes you both.’ ”

In her late-20s, Mrs. Thompson was a founding co-editor of the magazine Industrial Design, later known as I.D., and she joined Ben Thompson’s Boston architectural practice in the 1960s. They married and went on to collaborate on festival marketplaces, the Harvest restaurant in Harvard Square, and the iconic retail store Design Research, or D/R, on Brattle Street in Cambridge with its all-glass exterior.

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“She was not interested in making a fabulous place for the very few,” said Andrea Leers, cofounder of the Boston architectural firm Leers Weinzapfel Associates. “She was interested in creating places that were for the public, that were very welcoming.”

For Mrs. Thompson and her husband, who died in 2002, design “was a way of enhancing life, and I think that distinguishes Jane from other designers. Her care always was to create social spaces, to create places that enlarged and energized life,” Leers said.

“She really was a pioneer in place-making the way we know it today,” Leers added. “Design was integral to that. It was not just a commercial venture. It was beautiful spaces filled with light, beautiful landscaping that went with it. It was the design of a whole lifestyle.”

With the Lifetime Achievement Award, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum praised Mrs. Thompson’s six-decade career and her pioneering revitalization projects such as Faneuil Hall, the Grand Central District in New York City, and Chicago’s Navy Pier.

“I find longevity proves something,” she later said in an interview for “Twenty Over Eighty,” published this year by Aileen Kwun and Bryn Smith.

“People are so limited in their ideas of what they’re capable of,” Mrs. Thompson said of the complexity she faced with long-term projects. “You have to make a battle plan for everything you’re doing in order to get through all the obstacles. And there are a . . . lot of obstacles.”

Born Jane Fiske in Champaign, Ill., she was the daughter of David Fiske and the former Ahna Anderson. With her parents and younger brother, she moved to New York’s Westchester County and wrote for the newspaper at New Rochelle High School.

“She was the most content-driven person I’ve known. She absolutely loved learning about anything and everything,” said her daughter, Sheila McCullough of Northampton. “She was encyclopedic with what she knew, and she wanted to understand the reason why for anything. She would not be persuaded unless you could tell her why.”

Mrs. Thompson graduated from Vassar College and worked at the Museum of Modern Art in New York with Philip Johnson, director of the architecture department. “I never saw a woman in a design office in all those years,” she said in the “Twenty Over Eighty” interview.

The experience helped shape her view of the need for women and men to work together in the field.

In the Boston Magazine interview, she recalled seeing a design that shoved a bed “off into a corner — you couldn’t even make it, let alone get in or out of it.”

Male designers “aren’t thinking about the functional interaction between beds and cleaning,” and female designers “know something men don’t,” she added. “The truth is we need men in design just as much as we need women. Because they think differently, and together they get it right. I called it the world of the double win.”

Mrs. Thompson, who also did graduate work at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts and studied creative writing at Bennington College, was editor of Industrial Design magazine in the late-1950s. Her marriage to Paul Mitarachi ended in divorce, as did a marriage to John McCullough, with whom she had two children, Sheila and Allen McCullough, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Formerly a partner in Benjamin Thompson and Associates, Mrs. Thompson headed the Thompson Design Group after her husband retired. When the couple opened their Harvest restaurant in the 1970s, she grew some of the produce, years ahead of the locally grown movement. “You just couldn’t easily buy things like sorrel then,” she told the Globe in 1993.

Meanwhile, the couple’s Willard Street house in Cambridge was home to Bauhaus chairs and bright Marimekko fabrics. The back wall was glass, which allowed Mrs. Thompson to gaze at her roses outside while playing her harpsichord inside. Her attention to detail was unsparing. While preparing a design to remodel the kitchen, “I made the sketch showing every pot, pan, and dish on the shelves,” she said in 2003.

In addition to her children, Mrs. Thompson leaves her stepchildren Gale McCullough of Ellsworth, Maine, Jill McCullough of Canterbury, N.H., Deborah Thompson of Lexington, Benjamin Thompson Jr., Nicholas Thompson, Anthony Thompson, and Marina Thompson; three grandchildren; 11 step-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.

Her immediate family is planning a private burial.

“To the very end, she just always wanted to be working,’ her daughter Sheila said.

In 1993, Mrs. Thompson received Institute Honors for Collaborative Achievement from the American Institute of Architects, and a Personal Recognition Award three years later from the Industrial Designers Society of America.

“She was really a force and an example of how to be fully engaged in life and in work,” Leers said. “This was not a person of small talk and little consequence. She was always working on something.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.