June 16, 2015

Janet Turner: Pioneer of Architectural Lighting Design

A look at the life and loves of the doyenne of lighting

  • Queen Mary University
  • Peckham Library by Alsop Architects

Best known as an advocate for light as a means to enhance a space or building, Janet Turner has long been internationally acclaimed as a designer, author, lecturer, and a role model for women in the design world. The glass-ceiling-shattering creative mind, with her signature shock of tomato-red hair, recently passed away at the age of 78, and the editors of Global Trends want to extend our deepest sympathies to her loved ones and the world of lighting with a look back at her as a visionary design pro and as a mesmerizing woman we would love to meet over cocktails.

Janet grew up the only child of a single mother in humble circumstances. Encouraged by her step-father, she attended Dudley art school and studied interior design, which she practiced for a number of years before joining the British company Concord Lighting.

At Concord, Janet served as director for more than 25 years and worked on many award-winning architectural projects including Peckham Library with Alsop Architects—a winner of the RIBA Stirling Prize. She was a pioneer of design management—a relatively new field of expertise in the 1980s. And she commissioned today’s experts (who were at the time just up-and-comers) such as Terence Woodgate to create aesthetically pleasing fixtures that utilized the forefront of lighting technology. In 1992, the Infinite low-voltage track and spotlight collection, which she had commissioned from Woodgate, won a British Design Award and the Best of the Best prize in the Red Dot awards.

After Concord, Janet worked as a consultant and advisor on a number of European projects including to Queen Mary Medical and Dental School with Alsop Architects. She oversaw lighting schemes for events at Buckingham Palace, Boston’s Cathedral of The Holy Cross, Berlin’s Neue National Gallery, and numerous exhibitions. She lectured in Europe, Japan, South Africa and the United States, and wrote three books on lighting. In 2014, The Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) gave Janet a lifetime achievement award “for her services to international lighting design and improving places for people.”

Lighting designer Janet Turner

Architect Christophe Egret of Studio Egret West is Janet’s long-time partner and project architect of both the Queen Mary Blizzard Building and the Peckham Library—the project that first brought the pair together in 1998. “Janet thinks of lighting like a painter might approach a watercolor, focusing on depth, highlights, color, contrast,” he says. “We collaborated for 17 years. Janet did the lighting of many Studio Egret West projects including our new studio in Clerkenwell.”

But there was much more to Janet than just lighting design, Egret says. “As well as working with light, she immersed herself in all forms of creativity, from garden design, fashion and cooking to theatre and jazz.” Janet’s fashion sense was noted by everyone she encountered. “Janet’s quintessential quality was her confident free spirit,” Egret says, noting that her red hair, which, he says, grew brighter over the years, was the signature of her self-confidence. That confidence extended into her closet. “In her youth, there was very little money, but her mother was a great seamstress and she was always the best dressed girl at school.” Throughout her life, Janet created her own fashions with the lessons taught by her mother. “Her clothes generally came from Chapel Market [a daily London street fair] for a tenner, no labels, the occasional secondhand find. Then, with a pair of scissors, a few cuts, a few more slashes, a knot or two and the all-important Andrew Logan broach, she was ready to face the world with panache,” Egret says. “She loved dressing up; she loved looking her best.”

Janet adored entertaining almost as much as fashion. “She was a foodie before it was fashionable,” Egret says. “She loved talking about the next meal and at short notice could rustle up a restaurant-quality meal for 12 with the minimum of fuss.”

Her other passion, Egret says, was music. “The sound of jazz was always floating through her home,” Egret explains. “She could close her eyes and tell you who was playing which instrument.” Janet befriended Ronnie Scott, the owner of Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, and was often asked to visit the green room to chat with and calm the nerves of the entertainers. “She met Dexter Gordon, Tubby Hayes, Stan Tracey, Chet Baker, Bobby Wellins, among many others,” Egret remembers.

Her words, Egret says, were straight forward, but never intended to offend. “She said it as it was. Her secret was humor and kindness, and the fact that she never intended to score points,” he explains.  “Straight talking was her currency, for compliments as well as complaints.”

When asked what he admired most about Janet, Egret responds, “As a person, her kindness, her spirit and the positive energy she exuded. As an artist, the confident simplicity of her means to achieve a sense of glamour.” He adds, “Janet has had an amazing life, 78 years of struggle and dogged ambition, her success always measured with her own scales, never that of others.”

The lighting world has lost an amazing artist in Janet Turner. We offer our heart-felt thanks to Christophe Egret for sharing memories and thoughts of Janet with us.


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