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.
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).
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.
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.