A look at the life and creative mind of designer Tom Karen, through his newly released memoir, Toymaker: My Journey from War to Wonder
Words by Sophie Tolhurst
Tom Karen OBE was responsible for a great number of groundbreaking designs, from aircraft to white goods, and from a ‘Popemobile’ to crash test dummies, and – both while working and since retiring – toys. Karen is now 94, and his memoir, Toymaker: My Journey From War to Wonder, will be published this month. It recounts the process behind his designs, but also shares his life story, including spending his earliest years in Czechoslovakia before fleeing from the Nazis across war-torn Europe and settling in Britain, and gives insight into the generous creative mind responsible for much-loved toys such as Marble Run and the Raleigh Chopper.
Karen spent 10 years in the aircraft industry before switching to industrial design; his first design job was for Ford, with later roles at Hotpoint and Phillips. Karen was appointed chief designer and MD at Ogle Design – the then go-to studio and a hub of creativity – with an impressive and diverse client list including Airbus, Renault, Raleigh, Electrolux, BAe, London Transport, Kiddicraft and Reliant.
His words communicate his unassailable passion for design, and his dedication to ‘improving the quality of day-to-day life in countless ways’ with everything he made. Yet, for Karen, his toys stand out among his many achievements – for the power of these simple items to provide a child with much happiness and inspiration.
Karen, in his younger days
There are plenty of creations old and new in this book to delight the reader, but what is equally joyful is to read about is the care, excitement and curiosity with which Karen approaches every single one.
13 INGREDIENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL PIECE OF DESIGN
Ever keen to stimulate other creative minds, Tom Karen’s ‘13 ingredients of a successful piece of design’ (listed below) have been taken up with enthusiasm by the students of design schools he has lectured at over the years.
Respect for material