The award-winning set and costume designer Maria Bjornson died suddenly this past weekend. Hailed by David Jays in the Guardian as "one of the boldest talents in theatre and opera of the last 30 years" whose designs were "lavish but unsettling...a unique idiom of romantic expressionism", Bjornson was just 53 and had been working on various new projects when she passed away.

The half-Romanian, half-Norwegian Bjornson was born in Paris but raised in London where her mother worked for the BBC World Service. After studying at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design, she launched her career at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre, working with Philip Prowse.

During her professional life, Bjornson worked on a wide range of operatic productions for, amongst others Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, English National Opera, the Royal Opera, Glyndebourne and La Scala.

For theatregoers, her international reputation was secured in 1986 with the Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera, which includes the breathtaking effect of the Paris Opera' crashing chandelier. The production won a slew of awards including Tonys for both set and costumes.

More recently, Bjornson received numerous Olivier nominations for her work on the Almeida Theatre's West End season in 1998/99, comprising a revival of David Hare's Plenty and the double bill of Racine's Phedre and Britannicus, starring Diana Rigg.

Amongst her other notable theatre credits were Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Aspects of Love and Mike Ockrent's revival of Follies in the West End; various RSC 1980s productions including The Way of the World with Judi Dench and The Tempest with Derek Jacobi; and, most recently, The Cherry Orchard, with Corin and Vanessa Redgrave, at the National Theatre.

She had been planning several opera productions with director Francesca Zambello when she passed away on Friday 13 December 2002.

- by Terri Paddock