The Archive of Art and Design holds the archives of many practitioners working across decorative arts and design processes, but there are few I feel as personal a connection to as Tom Karen’s. ‘If you are over 30, it’s likely that part of your soul is Tom Karen-shaped’ said Sam Jacob, in the Architects’ Journal, and that certainly rings true for me.
Often described as ‘the man who designed the Seventies’, Karen was an innovative product and transport designer whose portfolio included car and aviation design as well as consumer goods and toys. After studying aeronautical engineering at Loughborough University, he worked in the aviation industry before switching to product and industrial design, designing for companies including Ford, Hotpoint and Phillips. In 1962 he became managing director of Ogle Design, and it was here that he produced some his most iconic designs including the Raleigh Chopper, Bond Bug and Kiddicraft marble run.
As a child I was jealous of my neighbour’s Raleigh Chopper and thought it the epitome of cool. Even though I had no idea of its background, or the fact that Karen had drawn inspiration from American dragsters, it was undeniably different and alluring – with its large rear wheel, high mud guard and chrome springs.
We may not have had a Chopper in the house, but we did have a marble run which, with its endless configurations, entertained me and my sisters for hours. I can still remember the satisfying clunk as the marble arrived at the bottom of the run, having successfully negotiated the complicated system of turns and spirals that we’d devised. Karen himself singled out the marble run as his most inspired creation:
‘Designing such a product seemed an irresistible challenge for me too. My mind seems to be programmed to enable me to juggle around a number of ideas at the same time: the function, the form, the way to make something … I let ideas percolate in my mind and when they took a certain shape, I would record them in my sketchbook (was never without one). This would clear my mind before tackling further problems.’
Early sketches for these and many other of Karen’s designs can be found in more than 70 of these sketchbooks, dating from the 1950s to the 2000s, in his archive at the V&A. When you look through them you can see the ideas pour from Karen’s mind on to the page, and evolve into familiar shapes and forms.
Karen worshipped good form and said that to him, every three-dimensional object was a piece of sculpture. In one of his sketchbooks are several pages entitled ‘Cars as Art’, where he jotted down his thoughts on the vehicular form and compared their lines to the ‘lovely “shut” lines’ of a beetle.
Simplicity and form must have been at the forefront of his mind when he designed the Bond Bug for Reliant. This three wheel ‘sports car’ was built on a triangular chassis, with a flat windscreen and a body made of very few fibreglass parts, all of which made it lighter and cheaper. Available only in orange (another cost saving), the car was launched in 1970 to an enthusiastic response. Despite not being a commercial success, the Bug remains a cult classic, and its platform was used as the basis for Luke Skywalker’s Land Speeder in Star Wars – another seventies icon.
Tom Karen was appointed OBE in 2018 for services to design. He died on 31 December 2022.