TOM KAREN aged 96
A DESIGN FOR LIFE
Born Thomas Josef Derrick Paul Kohn in Vienna in 1926. His father was Jewish and his mother Catholic. His father owned a very successful brick and cement plant in Czechoslovakia.
His maternal grandfather was a Hungarian painter, Arthur von Ferraris, who painted Emperor Franz Joseph, Kaiser Wilhelm the second and J.D. Rockefeller, amongst others.
Thomas went to school in Brno. And then the Nazis invaded the country. His father moved the family to Prague. Thomas was allowed to take one suitcase with him. “I was just 13. I don’t think I was quite ready to finish my childhood and playing with toys”.
He said of his father, “He thought Prague might be spared…Then of course we watched the Germans marching down Wenceslas Square”.
His father had supplied the Czech Air Force, so he had contacts who enabled the family to escape the country. They went to Poland, then Belgium and finally France.
“We had periods of being hungry and at some stage we were staying in dreadful unhygienic places”.
When the Nazis seized France, the Kohn family paid money to be smuggled into Portugal.
From Lisbon they sailed to Bristol. To their amazement they were not sunk in the channel and were welcomed as refugees. “It was heaven arriving here. It was so nice. And I have never been hungry since”. It was 1942.
Soon afterwards, Thomas went to study Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough College of Technology (later to become a university), where he gained his degree. It was whilst here that he changed his surname to ‘Karen’, believing it made him sound more English and so that nobody could determine his nationality or religion from his name.
It was only after the war he learned his painter grandfather had been imprisoned in Terezin Concentration Camp and had eventually been executed.
After graduation, he went to work for Hunting Percival, making both the Proctor and Provost flight trainers. From there he moved to the Air Registration Board. He worked in aeronautics for 10 years but by then he became bored with the industry.
So, he then enrolled at The Central School of Arts and Crafts to study Industrial Design. By now he was married (and would have 4 children) and was living in Letchworth.
When he left the Central School, Tom was snapped up by Ford. He won the ‘Institute of British Carriages and Automobile Manufacturers’ car design competition for his work on the interior of the Ford Anglia car.
He was headhunted by Ogle Designs who produced cars, and he became senior Designer, but he did not stay there long.
Then he moved to Hotpoint- Philips where he became ‘Product Design Manager for White Goods’, working primarily on vacuum cleaners.
But in 1962, David Ogle (who owned Ogle Designs) was killed in a car crash. He drove his Ogle SX1000 (a car that had been designed by Tom), into the back of a lorry on his way to Brands Hatch. The crash was David’s driving mistake and no blame was attached to Tom.
“When poor David Ogle was killed in a car crash at the weekend, on the Monday I had a phone call asking me if I wanted to talk to them and they offered me a job. And that began my 40 years there”.
The job he was offered was Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and it was now that his design career really took off.
Bush Radio was Ogle Design’s biggest account but there was only 6 months remaining on the contract. In that period Tom designed the TR130 radio, which was to become the biggest selling radio of the 1960s.
He designed the Reliant Scimitar GTE car (and drove one himself). Princess Anne also drove one (as featured in the TV series ‘The Crown’).
He also designed the Reliant Robin, the Reliant Kitten and the Bond Bug, a sporty 2-seater, which could be driven on a motorcycle licence.
The Scimitar was a massive success, the Bond Bug a big failure. Only 3,000 were made, they were all bright orange and went very slowly – but they are now a collectors item).
He was also creating lorry cabs for Leyland.
He then came up with a design for “the caravan of the future”, the Eccles Amethyst, and started a partnership with CI Caravans International. It was launched at the 1969 Caravan and Camping Exhibition. It was not very popular so later on, in 1976, he redesigned it to a more conventional style caravan – and it became the 1970s top seller.
He designed the Aston Martin that was the star of the 1972 Earls Court car show.
He predicted (wrongly) the decline of the British motorbike. He came up with the Ariel-3, a three wheeled moped which was launched at Woburn Abbey. It flopped.
Nevertheless he worked for both BSA and Triumph motorbikes. It was him who created the rectangular box fuel tanks, known as ‘bread bins’, which proved enormously popular on American motorbikes.
He designed most of the crash test dummies used by vehicle manufacturers in Britain.
But his biggest success was for Raleigh bikes of Nottingham – the ‘Chopper’ bike. He originally sketched it in 1968 (and his early designs are now in the Victoria & Albert Museum). It was first sold in 1969. Even he was stunned by its success, selling 1.5 million bikes, and saving Raleigh from impending financial disaster.
However, there was big controversy. Senior Designer at Raleigh, Alan Oakley, claimed he had come up with the design, sketching it on a plane – but he could not produce his drawings. Tom said he had created it in a meeting with Raleigh directors – and had the drawings to prove it. “What more evidence could I give?” The Design Council decided in Tom’s favour.
Years later he said, “There were two kinds of children in the seventies – those who had a Raleigh Chopper and those who desperately wanted one.”
He added, “I always meet people who either had a Chopper or badly wanted one…but if you analyse the Chopper it wasn’t a good bike. The wheels were too heavy and the mudguards were out of alignment. But simplicity is a virtue. It all added up to a very successful product”.
Whilst the Scimitar GTE was a big success, Tom hated its biggest rival, the Ford Capri, with a passion. “There is nothing good to be said for them except some people think they look alright. Aerodynamically they’re lousy. Headroom in the back is lousy, visibility is lousy, with a lot of glass they’re lousy, from a weight point of view they’re lousy and they give no boot room”.
In the late 1970s he was asked by the ‘Star Wars’ film franchise to design a vehicle for Luke Skywalker. He came up with the ‘Landspeeder’, loosely based on his Bond Bug design.
Also, in the 1980s, due to his links to Leyland, he was asked to create the bulletproof ‘Popemobile’, so the Pontiff could be driven around whilst on international visits. There were actually two vehicles, one large, one small.
Also in the 1980s, the Reliant Robin became very popular again due to the success of the TV show ‘Only Fools and Horses’. Tom remained nonplussed (and claimed never to have watched the programme).
He designed hovercrafts, prams, children’s slides etc, and worked with Electrolux, Renault, Kiddicraft, Airbus and London Transport. He came up with literally hundreds of creations.
In 1999 he stepped down as CEO with Ogle Designs (although he continued to work for them for a couple more years). He and his wife divorced and he moved to a terraced house in Cambridge.
He set up a workshop in his garden although it overspilled into his kitchen.
In 2001 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by his alma mater Loughborough University.
And he created his own company, ‘Tom Karen Designs’ and started creating children’s toys. He had 7 grandchildren and would test each toy on them. If they approved, he made it.
He created ‘Big Brix’ (like giant lego). “It is very satisfying when you knock it down”.
His biggest success in later life was a marble toy run. He had designed one for his children years ago and they had played with it for hours.
It involved running marbles down pieces of wood. It was described by the Toy Museum as, “a simple idea, perfectly realised and enjoyed by hundreds and thousands of children for decades.” Kids loved it – but not the manufacturers as it never wore out and never needed replacing. Tom called this his greatest design.
When the marble run was released for public sales the advert showed his daughter Eugenie (then aged just 3) playing with it. She later said that for many years it was disconcerting to see pictures of her younger self at play.
And he created an indoor bowling alley. He once visited a primary school to give a talk. When he asked the children who had played with this toy, every single hand went up. “I’m so proud of my bowling alley”.
Then he moved into sculpture. In 2010 he produced the ‘Ladies in Waiting’ piece made in metal showing women queuing for an outside toilet. It was part of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
He also became a qualified silversmith.
He held many workshops for children.
He was made an OBE in 2019.
Tom’s house was adorned with bird models (his latest passion), flying ballerinas and a large cardboard tiger in his living room.
For the 50th anniversary of the Bond Bug, Tom designed a commemorative mug. He was an honorary member of the ‘Bug Club’ and loved attending their meetings. He admitted he realised it wasn’t that safe when the one he had in his office toppled over when a colleague leaned on it.
He wrote two autobiographies, ‘Ogle and the Bug’ (2010) and ‘Toymaker’ (2020). In the former he talked of his pride in creating small cars. “It’s easy to design a Lamborghini – you just throw money at it.”
Throughout his life he donated lots of money to refugee causes and called the Conservative government’s refugee policy, “absolutely appalling”.
At the time he died, there was an exhibition of his work at the One Garden City Museum in Letchworth. The V& A have displayed many of his works as well.
Tributes flooded in. Jonny Ive, Apple’s design boss said, “He was optimistic and conspicuously responsible. He perfectly embodied the ideals and values of a generation of designers that took the responsibilities of their profession very seriously”.
The current CEO of Ogle Designs, Philip Martin said, “He was an exceptionally talented designer and a very special man. The company owes him a great debt of gratitude”.
Josh Tidy, the curator of the exhibition in Letchworth said, His designs, artworks and sheer joie de vivre will continue to be remembered fondly for many years to come”.
RIP – Redesigning Impressive Products