The British industrial designer Tom Karen OBE died on 31 December 2022, aged 96. Karen was the quintessential blend of designer and engineer, someone for whom the science of materials and manufacturing was an essential part of a product’s journey, yet who was also keenly aware of the role that delight and desire played in an object’s success or failure.
Karen was born in Vienna in 1926, then spent his early childhood in Brno in the Czech Republic. His family arrived in Britain during the Second World War, having successfully fled the Nazis. A keen designer and maker throughout his early life, he studied aircraft engineering at Loughborough and began his career in the aviation industry before rising to increasing prominence in the 1960s, when he became a much sought-after industrial designer.
From 1962 to 1999, Karen was chief designer of Ogle Design, a modest British consultancy set up by David Ogle in 1954. Karen joined as the company expanded, moving to Letchworth Garden City and taking up contracts with major British manufacturers like bike maker Raleigh and the car company Reliant.
Whilst at Ogle, Karen styled Reliant’s pioneering Scimitar, a fibreglass-bodied sports car. He oversaw several variants of this popular GT (famously driven by Princess Anne), including the forward-looking glass-roofed ‘Triplex’ special. Reliant also commissioned him to design the striking 1970 Bond Bug, a compact, wedge-shaped three-wheeler that was invariably painted bright orange, as well as the company’s notorious 1972 Robin model.
Other projects included the ‘Sotheby Special’, a bold reimagining of the Aston Martin DBS V8, named not for the auction house but for Imperial Tobacco’s newest brand of cigarettes. Just three were built. Ogle also had a hand in bus design, early electric taxis, and mock-ups of new business jets, as well as working on diverse projects like Turkey’s second ever mass-produced passenger car, the Anadol A1.
Karen even shaped the Range Rover-based Pope Mobile for John Paul II’s 1982 visit to the UK. In addition to these myriad vehicles there was even prop-work for the first Star Wars film – the Landspeeder was built atop a Bond Bug chassis.
Karen’s other major contribution to the visual shorthand of the 1970s was the Raleigh Chopper. This cartoonish (and rather unstable) child’s bike was both cult object and massive sales success, with around 1.5 million produced. Karen helped Raleigh refine the decidedly un-bike-like lines, with its high handlebars and banana-shaped seat that drew on American custom car and motorbike culture. The result was a machine that encapsulated British obsession with the cool of American excess.
Karen’s portfolio was eclectic in the extreme, covering everything from car to caravan design, all the way down to consumer goods and ultra-popular toys. As well as Reliant and Raleigh, Karen worked on products for Ford, Bush, Hotpoint, and Phillips. He was a keen member of the British Toymakers Guild – his 2020 autobiography was called Toymaker – and continued to make weird and wonderful objects and amusements throughout his long retirement.
Despite the ubiquity of his work – in pop culture, if not in actual everyday life – Tom Karen spent much of his career as a relatively low-key figure in industrial design history. ‘No product I have designed has ever been shown at the V&A,’ he once lamented, although the museum now holds some of his extensive sketchbooks. Ultimately, his long, rich and varied life secured him the legacy that he deserved, that of a skilled designer capable of channelling delight into form.
Tom Karen, 1926-2022, TomKarenDesigner.co.uk (opens in new tab)
An exhibition about the designer’s life and work, Tom Karen: Creations, is running at Letchworth’s Museum at One Garden City (opens in new tab) until Spring 2023
Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.
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