Tom Karen2 February 2010 by Jamie Mitchell
His may not be a name or a face that is instantly recognizable, but read the list of household name products that Tom Karen has designed and you realize that he was one of the leading designers of his generation
Even if you don’t know his name, if you were born before the Eighties, you’ll know Tom Karen’s stuff.
As managing director and head designer at Ogle Design from 1962 until 1999, Karen was responsible for the Raleigh Chopper, a bike that felt more Easy Rider than paperboy, and the iconic and much imitated Kiddicraft Marble Run, products which have, for many people, become part of the landscape of childhood nostalgia.
He designed the Reliant Scimitar GTE, a car whose ‘waistline’ (the line between a car’s body and its windows) rose daringly above the back wheels, making estate cars sexy for the first time. The best of Karen’s work challenged convention; it broke rules and made new ones.
‘I would try to improve any product’, he says, simply, ‘and there aren’t many products that can’t be improved’.
His oeuvre includes baths, crash test dummies (his became the European standard), radios and an award-winning range of lorries for British Leyland.
Now in his eighties, Karen grew up in a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia before the Second World War, in a ‘pile’ of a house, served by a staff of 17, but his family was forced to flee the Nazis for the UK and a much more frugal life. He lives in Cambridge now, but some of his German/Czechoslovakian accent, like his love of cars, has endured since childhood.
‘I was a student of motorcars before I was two,’ he says. ‘When I was a child my nanny bet a friend that I could identify 12 different models of car – she won 500 crowns for that,’ he laughs.
He has always loved planes too, and studied aeronautical design at Loughborough University (which was then Loughborough College), ‘because at that time aircraft were topical and motorcars weren’t’ and ‘landed’ in the aircraft industry where he spent the next decade working in stress analysis. ‘This really wasn’t my cup of tea’, he says: ‘I’m a lousy mathematician’.
Then he discovered industrial design. Some long-overdue compensation money from Czechoslovakia allowed him to enroll on the Central School of Art’s Industrial DesignMA, which led to a job with Ford.
To work with cars was a childhood dream realised, but his next move, in retrospect, was a shrewd one: ‘I had a sort of fairy godmother in the Design Council at the time, and she told me to stay in motorcars for five years and then get out, otherwise you can get trapped in that industry,’ he explains.
But Karen hasn’t always been a careerist. A brief spell designing boats and cookers for Ogle Design followed (‘I wasn’t very good at stoves,’ he admits), then it was on to Hotpoint, a job that was fated not to last: Karen undermined the design manager by redesigned a washing machine while the man was on holiday. ‘He won a design award with my machine while I got a better job,’ says Karen.
He spent another year designing white goods, this time for Philips, before the tragic death of David Ogle in a car crash. ‘I got a call asking if I would come in and talk to them and, a fortnight later –May 1962, I remember the date – suddenly I was running Ogle. This was a real turning point in my career, because I didn’t know where I was going after Philips,’ he recalls.
It’s obvious talking to Karen that he loves design more than the idea – or the business – of being a designer, but at Ogle, he had to take on the business side, too. ‘I think the first 20-25 years were great, but then it grew a bit too much for somebody who just wanted to design,’ he admits.
Nevertheless, it was a special time and place to be an industrial designer. ‘We could basically build an entire car – no other independent design office in the UK could do that, and still can’t. I loved having those kinds of people around,’ he says.
So what makes good design? ‘Well, you want it to have a look of quality; you want it to be inviting to use, and it has to be easy to make. I never designed anything that I wouldn’t want to use myself,’ he says.
It’s more than a decade since Karen left Ogle, but he hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm: as well as his favourite pastime – designing toys for his grandchildren – he’s fired up about London mayor Boris Johnson’s design competition to replace the bendy bus. The winner, a Routmasteresqe design by Foster + Partners is, he thinks, unfeasible. ‘They put a platform on the back, and I think there’s no way they’ll do that, because it means having a conductor, which they can’t afford to have, and you can’t get a chassis with the engine at the front.’
FX published his letter about this in October, including a sketch of his own idea, the result of a two-year project with Ogle to develop the specification for a new double-decker bus. But his sketches and letters, he guesses, have gone unread by those at City Hall.
Other ideas he shows me include the pedestrianisation of Regent Street (pictured above), which would involve enclosing the street in a canopy of glass, and houses, which would be built using technology and standards forged by the motoring industry.
‘You could make gorgeous, quality houses with fantastic value for money, which is what a car is. On a motorcar, the door fits perfectly, and it still fits after a 100,000 miles of going over bumps and curves. It keeps the drafts out, it keeps the water out, if you want to replace it ou can and it will fit. Now think of a house…’
From radios to buses and houses to aeroplanes, Karen has designed it all. ‘Design is design is design for me. I can enthuse about any product; the only thing that ever put me off was if the client wasn’t of the right calibre. I still want to redesign the world,’ he says, and he’s not joking.