Maria Björnson, a World-Famous Designer of Romanian heritage

Maria Björnson was a celebrated theatre designer of Romanian-Norwegian parentage, who made her career in Great Britain.

She was a descendant of two illustrious families from both parents.

Her mother came from a Romanian noble family, whose inner circle included personalities such as George Enescu and Ion Rațiu. The future iconic designer grew up as Prodan, her mother’s name, until she reached adulthood. Being abandoned by her father, Maria was only raised by her mother, a former Sorbonne student. Her maternal grandmother, Dr. Maria Cutzarida-Crățunescu (1857-1919), was the first Romanian woman to acquire a medical degree and practise medicine, and has an iconic reputation in Romania similar to Florence Nightingale in Britain.

Maria’s paternal great-grandfather was Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), who received the 1903 Nobel Prize in Literature.

 In 1986, Maria Björnson designed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ”The Phantom of the Opera”. In 1988, she won two Tony Awards (for the Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design), being the only person involved in the production of this world-famous musical to do so.

 Maria designed for ”The Phantom of the Opera” what was to become one of the most famous chandeliers in the world.

1. Maria Björnson, the only woman in the world to win unshared Tony Awards for both Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design.  2. Portrait of Maria Björnson by her friend the designer and artist Yolanda Sonnabend. 3. Maria with her Romanian mother, Maria ('Mia') Prodan. 4. One of the 200 costumes she designed for the ”The Phantom of the Opera”, in 1986. 5.  The famous scene of the masquerade ball, when the Phantom appears costumed as the Red Death. 6. The Tony Award, considered the highest U.S. theatre honor, the New York theatre industry's equivalent to the Oscars for motion pictures.

1. Maria Björnson, the only woman in the world to win unshared Tony Awards for both Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design.
2. Portrait of Maria Björnson by her friend the designer and artist Yolanda Sonnabend.
3. Maria with her Romanian mother, Maria (‘Mia’) Prodan.
4. One of the 200 costumes she designed for the ”The Phantom of the Opera”, in 1986.
5. The famous scene of the masquerade ball, when the Phantom appears costumed as the Red Death.
6. The Tony Award, considered the highest U.S. theatre honor, the New York theatre industry’s equivalent to the Oscars for motion pictures.

She was also the first non-American woman to ever win the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design, and the 3rd overall. As of 2015, only two more women have won the award, with Maria Björnson remaining the only European woman in the history of the Tony Awards to receive the statuette for the Best Scenic Design.

Maria Björnson remains, as of 2015, the only woman in the world to win unshared Tony Awards for both Best Scenic Design and Best Costume Design. She is also the only non-American woman to receive these two awards (and one of the two in the world, since only Franne Lee holds these distinctions).

Photo Collage: 1 + 4: Parts of the famous setting designed by Maria Björnson for ”The Phantom of the Opera”. 2. The ”The Phantom of the Opera” chandelier, one of the world's most famous. Considered Björnson's greatest stage triumph, it was named ”Maria” in her honour, in 2011. The name was inlaid on the inside of the $2M set piece. 3. The Royal Albert Hall, one of Great Britain's most iconic buildings and one of the greatest concert halls in the world. The 25th anniversary of ”The Phantom of the Opera” was celebrated here in 2011, almost a decade after Maria Björnson's death. The composer paid a tribute to her on this occasion.

Photo Collage:
1 + 4: Parts of the famous setting designed by Maria Björnson for ”The Phantom of the Opera”.
2. The ”The Phantom of the Opera” chandelier, one of the world’s most famous. Considered Björnson’s greatest stage triumph, it was named ”Maria” in her honour, in 2011. The name was inlaid on the inside of the $2M set piece.
3. The Royal Albert Hall, one of Great Britain’s most iconic buildings and one of the greatest concert halls in the world. The 25th anniversary of ”The Phantom of the Opera” was celebrated here in 2011, almost a decade after Maria Björnson’s death. The composer paid a tribute to her on this occasion.

Maria Björnson was deeply influenced by her Romanian heritage. She and her mother often wore the traditional Romanian blouses called IAs. Maria was inspired to use embroidery for the costumes she designed for the ”The Phantom of the Opera” by the national costume of her mother’s native country.

A traditional Romanian blouse called IA, pronounced ee-ah (photo source: Galateca)

 In 1987, at the age of 38, the famous designer became a British citizen. Both she and her mother wished to remain stateless persons as a protest against the regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, hoping to become Romanian citizens one day, in a free Romania. However, Maria’s difficulties in obtaining travel documents for her work abroad meant that she had to abandon the dream and take British citizenship.

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