The British industrial designer Tom Karen OBE died on 31 December 2022, aged 96. Karen was the quintessential mix of designer and engineer, somebody for whom the science of supplies and manufacturing was a necessary a part of a product’s journey, but who was additionally keenly conscious of the function that delight and want performed in an object’s success or failure.
Karen was born in Vienna in 1926, then spent his early childhood in Brno within the Czech Republic. His household arrived in Britain in the course of the Second World Battle, having efficiently fled the Nazis. A eager designer and maker all through his formative years, he studied plane engineering at Loughborough and started his profession within the aviation business earlier than rising to rising prominence within the Nineteen Sixties, when he grew to become a a lot sought-after industrial designer.
From 1962 to 1999, Karen was chief designer of Ogle Design, a modest British consultancy arrange by David Ogle in 1954. Karen joined as the corporate expanded, transferring to Letchworth Backyard Metropolis and taking on contracts with main British producers like bike maker Raleigh and the automobile firm Reliant.
While at Ogle, Karen styled Reliant’s pioneering Scimitar, a fibreglass-bodied sports activities automobile. He oversaw a number of variants of this widespread GT (famously pushed by Princess Anne), together with the forward-looking glass-roofed ‘Triplex’ particular. Reliant additionally commissioned him to design the hanging 1970 Bond Bug, a compact, wedge-shaped three-wheeler that was invariably painted brilliant orange, in addition to the corporate’s infamous 1972 Robin mannequin.
Different tasks included the ‘Sotheby Particular’, a daring reimagining of the Aston Martin DBS V8, named not for the public sale home however for Imperial Tobacco’s latest model of cigarettes. Simply three have been constructed. Ogle additionally had a hand in bus design, early electrical taxis, and mock-ups of recent enterprise jets, in addition to engaged on numerous tasks like Turkey’s second ever mass-produced passenger automobile, the Anadol A1.
Karen even formed the Vary Rover-based Pope Cellular for John Paul II’s 1982 go to to the UK. Along with these myriad automobiles there was even prop-work for the primary Star Wars movie – the Landspeeder was constructed atop a Bond Bug chassis.
Karen’s different main contribution to the visible shorthand of the Nineteen Seventies was the Raleigh Chopper. This cartoonish (and quite unstable) baby’s bike was each cult object and big gross sales success, with round 1.5 million produced. Karen helped Raleigh refine the decidedly un-bike-like strains, with its excessive handlebars and banana-shaped seat that drew on American customized automobile and motorcycle tradition. The outcome was a machine that encapsulated British obsession with the cool of American extra.
Karen’s portfolio was eclectic within the excessive, masking every little thing from automobile to caravan design, all the way in which all the way down to client items and ultra-popular toys. In addition to Reliant and Raleigh, Karen labored on merchandise for Ford, Bush, Hotpoint, and Phillips. He was a eager member of the British Toymakers Guild – his 2020 autobiography was known as Toymaker – and continued to make bizarre objects and amusements all through his lengthy retirement.
Regardless of the ubiquity of his work – in popular culture, if not in precise on a regular basis life – Tom Karen spent a lot of his profession as a comparatively low-key determine in industrial design historical past. ‘No product I’ve designed has ever been proven on the V&A,’ he as soon as lamented, though the museum now holds a few of his in depth sketchbooks. In the end, his lengthy, wealthy and assorted life secured him the legacy that he deserved, that of a talented designer able to channelling delight into kind.
Tom Karen, 1926-2022, TomKarenDesigner.co.uk (opens in new tab)
An exhibition concerning the designer’s life and work, Tom Karen: Creations, is working at Letchworth’s Museum at One Backyard Metropolis (opens in new tab) till Spring 2023