Jane Priestman OBE is a legendary figure in the design world. For over 40 years she has specialised in strategic design, design management and the co-ordination of major national and international projects, with transport as her niche.

Humbled as we enter her home in Islington, we’re greeted by Jane and her former colleague and long-time friend, Lady Frances Sorrell OBE. Jane and Frances have a palpable affection and undeniable respect for each other. Frances, along with her husband, John Sorrell, worked with Jane on a vast number of projects throughout her stints at the British Airports Authority (BAA) and British Rail, including working across all seven UK airports on their identity and retail branding, as well as on train interiors and map design.

“Jane’s clear sightedness, bravery and, perhaps most importantly, her good humour stood out to me”, characteristics that Frances believes have helped to build a special relationship between the two highly respected women over the years. Jane and Frances have maintained a close friendship, frequenting the local family-run restaurant around the corner from Jane’s house where they catch up.

In this interview concluding the Leading Women series, Jane and Frances discuss Jane’s life and accomplishments. Jane was aware of how design mattered at every scale and in every detail. But in a time where the pure concept of design was not understood or recognised, she had the extra challenge of making projects happen whilst demanding authority within organisations that were not accustomed to senior women.

But nothing stopped Jane as she persevered and transformed the experience of public air and rail travel through good design. Even at 88 years old, and with a heart condition which sometimes makes talking difficult, she’s not quite done yet: “I long to get hold of the hospitals”, she muses.

The life and work of Jane Priestman

Jane began her career as a qualified interior designer. Soon after graduating from university, she set up and ran her own successful design practice for 20 years. It was during this time that Jane acquired the knowledge and skills which, along with her strength of character, would define the rest of her career.

British Airports Authority

Jane joined the British Airports Authority as Design Manager in 1975. According to Designers Journal, May 1987, design management at that time was “limited to a gentleman with a cane and a bowler hat who came in to advise the chairman one morning a week”. She was about to change that for good.

For Jane, overseeing the BAA’s design ranged from the sweeping architecture of the airport itself to the more minute details like baggage and bins. Their annual budget for design ran into the millions, with over 30 architectural and design consultants, including Frances and John Sorrell’s design business at the time, Newell & Sorrell.

Perhaps most notably was Jane’s revolutionary work on the seven UK airports whilst at the BAA. She commissioned Jock Kinneir to create the signage for all seven airports to help to direct passengers, which was taken up by many airports worldwide, and Peter Crutch to design seating that could be moved together so that people could lie down. At Gatwick, Jane oversaw the design of Gatwick North Terminal as well the landscaping around the monorail. Once she had proven herself, Jane took on her biggest challenge yet. She was instrumental in appointing Norman Foster to design Stansted Airport, breaking new ground in airport design worldwide.

For every project that she was involved in, collaboration was the way Jane taught designers to work. She ensured that the designers, architects, artists, and engineers that she worked with knew that they were not working alone, but as part of a larger design team.

“Jane entered an organisation where the notion of design was alien,” says Frances “but she managed to turn the tide of attitudes within the BAA.” And this was no mean feat – by the time she left in 1986, the BAA had published a policy statement highlighting the importance of design as a factor that all managers must understand, acknowledge and promote.

British Rail

“My family said I should give up. So then I took over British Rail” are Jane’s words when reminiscing about her move from the BAA to British Rail. She was appointed in the new post of Director of Architecture, Design and Environment in 1986. She was managing nearly 300 architects, graphic designers and an environment group, as well as five businesses.

Jane could “feel it in her fingertips when a big company was sliding into a new thought process” (Designers Journal, May 1987) and that’s exactly what was happening with British Rail. Their mindset was changing and she came with a reputation for changing things.

After having elegant stone flooring laid at Paddington Station as part if its refurbishment, she went on to commission Nicholas Grimshaw to design the International Terminal at Waterloo – a beautiful and organic building that followed the curves of the track. Once again, Jane’s five-year stint at British Rail proved that transport could be successful through good design.

Other accolades

As a result of her work and legacy, Jane has been recognised with a number of prestigious awards. In 1985, she was made an official honorary member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and in 1991 appointed an OBE for her contribution to design and staunch support of design management.

At the age of 85, she was also awarded the Ada Louise Huxtable Prize lifetime achievement award in 2015. The judges said that “her contribution to future generations is immeasurable” and had the vision that architecture could change lives.

Unphased by the challenges and hurdles she faced, Jane earned respect from those whom she worked with, and won recognition and prestige in the design community. Her accomplishments encouraged significant progress during her career, and haven’t stopped there. Both as an example to other leading women and as a major source of influence and inspiration to the design industry as a whole, Jane Priestman has transformed the space for generations to come.

Read the series

Check out the full Leading Women in Design series. 

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