26 Apr 2021
Tom Karen – “The greatest designer you’ve never heard of”
Alumnus Dr Tom Karen OBE is responsible for many award winning and trend-setting designs. His work is internationally recognisable, and designs include the Raleigh Chopper bicycle, Marble Run, and the Reliant Scimitar GTE car.
Tom came to the UK in 1942 having fled German occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. He studied Aeronautical Engineering at Loughborough and graduated in 1945. Following ten years in the aircraft industry, Tom moved to London to pursue further study in Industrial Design.
He went on to work at Ford, Hotpoint, and Phillips, before becoming Managing Director and Chief Designer at Ogle Design from 1962 to 1999. Ogle clients included Airbus, Renault, Raleigh, Electrolux, BR, BAE, London Transport, Kiddicraft, and Reliant.
Among a raft of well-known Ogle products are the Reliant Scimitar GTE 'high performance estate', Leyland's 'Truck of the year', and the Bond Bug.
Reliant Bond Bug
Away from vehicles, Tom is also responsible for the infamous Raleigh Chopper bicycle and Kiddicraft Marble Run. One of Tom’s most successful designs, the Marble Run has been played with by millions of children. He cites the piece as his “most inspired creation”.
Talking about designing the Marble Run, he said:
“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. My sketches for the marble run are in the archives of the V&A.
“Only when I had firmed up on these did I have drawings made for our model makers to make a prototype set. No trial and error was involved - I relied entirely on their skill.
“The model was perfect, worked well and looked great. From the initial concept to this point took about one month.”
In other areas of design, Tom’s aircraft training from his younger years was helpful when working on cabin design for Airbus, BAe, SAAB, and Westland. Looking ahead, he proposed the Aircruiser design, Floating Cities, and 'the greenest car on the planet'.
A key figure in design – particularly in the 1970s – Tom didn’t stop there. He enjoys working with children and has spent the last 20 years of his retirement doing workshops in primary schools and making toys and games for his grandchildren.
The BBC’s Top Gear magazine described him as “the greatest designer you’ve never heard of” and a Japanese publication devoted 50 pages to Ogle work.
He has tutored at the Royal College of Art, gave lectures and workshops at the Central Academy in Beijing, and had his piece ‘The Ladies in Waiting’ exhibited at the Royal Academy of the Arts, London.
The Ladies in Waiting
The University recognised him for his design work with an Honorary Doctorate in 2001. He was awarded an OBE for his services to design in 2018.
If you would like to read more about Tom Karen, his memoir ‘Toymaker: My Journey from War to Wonder’ was released in November 2020 and is now available online.
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