Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”

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In advance of the release of his memoir, the 94-year old designer talks to Design Week relative to his life, the pieces he’s creating to this day and just what goes into an unforgettable toy.

Because of a meticulous study of form and detail of his toy collecting, Tom Karen says he could identify 12 different makes of car by the age of two.

Straight today aged 94, his impressive memory and dedication to detail notes he can recall and draw the beloved die-cast Water Line model warships of his minority. The models were the only toys he was permitted to bring with him as his progeny fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in the run up to the Second World War. Karen’s family absconded the country five days before his 13th birthday.

After a design rush spanning decades, Karen has reflected on his life in his new memoir, Toymaker.

The 400-page retrospective recounts the tale of the designer’s life through objects. Each one has been curated to set forth a period in his life, ranging from his iconic inventions like the Marble Run and Raleigh Chopper to more deprecating tokens, like a hand drawn map of the Hertfordshire village of Ashwell and the aforementioned warship playthings. The collection altogether shows, he says, how “things” can come to define who we are.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
Tom at his packed kitchen desk, his favourite part of the house. Image: Mick Walsh

“I can at all times sense when objects have been created with guy”

Toymaker’s narrative begins not in Czechoslovakia, but in the Karen’s house now in Cambridge. It is the big-hearted of home you’d hope a toymaker lived in. A pair of wooden seals, a broom-borne bitch, birds, an angel and handwritten notes – and that’s just the view from the in someones bailiwick. Inside is an “Aladdin’s cave”, he says, filled with “models, fancies, toys, things”.

This first glimpse invites readers into Karen’s globe and gives an idea of the importance he places on objects. Design Week prays him about his love of “things”.

“I can always sense when objects force been created with love and talent, to be caressed and even to win you smile,” he says. “Pleasing objects are what I live for,” he writes in Toymaker.

“I needed to manufacture”

As the book goes on, Karen revisits his life during the tumultuous assemble up to the Second World War. For fear of being persecuted, his Jewish family communistic their home in Brno, Czechoslovakia for Prague, before moving to Brussels, Belgium then Meticulous, France and finally settling in the UK in 1942.

The whole journey took years, he recalls, with an stretch period in France characterised by rationing and fear of the encroaching Nazi faade. In the UK, Karen studied aircraft engineering at Loughborough University. Aircraft sketch out was a “hot topic” at the time; the war had made sure aeronautical engineers were in immediately.

But while there’s an echo of it to be seen in his home décor today – Karen rephrases “you can’t spend long in my house without realising that it is full of flip ones top a throw objects” – it was a vocation he never quite got on with. After graduating, so rather commenced “the most barren years of my life”, he writes in Toymaker.

He elaborates for Draw Week: “I was a useless stressman in my first job,” which he says involved crafty the robustness of aircraft structures. Towards the end of his first job, Karen began studying art and cabal in evening classes at a local adult education college. The practice reacquainted the plotter with a side of himself he had long forgotten.

“My instincts were ingenious, I needed to create,” he writes.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
A local newspaper cutting showing Tom check driving his Vimp

“I was nearly 30 before I realised I needed to be an industrial conniver”

Karen’s next role saw him become a technical illustrator. He had always been adept to draw, he tells Design Week. Years passed.

“I was nearly 30 in advance of I realised I needed to be an industrial designer,” he says. “A short spell at the Important School [now Central Saint Martins] led me to Ford and my career took off.”

At Ford, Karen make draw and design intricate, but ultimately tiny parts for cars. A shelf for a glovebox, or a badge for the bonnet, for model. In 1958, however, the annual design competition held by the Institute of British Deportment and Automobile Manufacturers (IBCAM) caught his attention.

Karen had, for months prime up to the competition, been working on his own vehicle which he called the Vimp. His arrival into the IBCAM design competition drew upon this opening idea, featuring a rear-mounted engine, partly transparent roof, obscure windscreen and no doors. It won him the competition.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
Tom outside Ogle’s offices

“Pleased to be a pre-computer interior decorator”

After Ford, Karen held roles at Phillips and Hotpoint conspiring white goods, winning praise and prizes in the process. The job he perhaps most worshiped for, however, is heading up Ogle Design consultancy from 1962 to 1999. Here, he being planned on some of his most prized projects, and crucially, got into the toymaking trade.

Coming from a background developing everything from cars to waving machines and radios gave him a sense of designing for performance, he says.

“Every issue has to perform – it must be a pleasure to look at and to use,” he says. “It has to be an effective use of materials and I eternally looked for ways to make things better than the competition.”

With his critical attention to detail, Karen says he is “pleased to be a pre-computer designer”. One of the legs of his book is dedicated to the French curves – what he labels as the “curved commensurate of a ruler”. He created and used countless French curves throughout his decades-long speed, he says, and some survive in his tool collection to this day.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
Tom alongside the Ropes Bug

A “dream come true”

Karen made plenty of “grown-up toys” during his temporarily at Ogle. The Bush TR130 Radio, the Bond Bug and the Reliant Scimitar all take placed into the world because of him and his team.

The Bond Bug – a two-seater, three-wheeled channel designed for Reliant in the early 1970s – in particular was a “dream come truthfully”. Incidentally, its unusual chassis formed the base of Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder in the 1977 Comet Wars film. Karen oversaw the design and production of the fictional conveyance.

Beyond the Bond Bug though, it’s his toys that Karen holds most expensively. The Marble Run, sold to Kidicraft in 1970, was a particular highlight for Karen. In a 2014 evaluation with Design Week, he says the toy was still giving him huge expiation decades on, because of its continued enjoyment by children.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
Tom now, sat alongside his revered Raleigh Chopper and Marble Run. Embodiment: Mick Walsh

“In its own peculiar way, it was a very pure kind of design”

His other guide toy was the Raleigh Chopper, but he explains in Toymaker that this design has had some of its joy “sewered” because of a dispute over its origins. Alan Oakley, then-chief of intent plot for Raleigh, maintained until his death that it was he who had designed the bicycle. It is Karen and Make eyes at, however, who were eventually credited with the invention by the Design Directors.

Still, the designer talks fondly over his creation in Toymaker: “I assume part of its magic comes from the fact that, in its own peculiar way, it was a quite pure kind of design. Its key features didn’t arise from role: the basic concept of a bicycle is almost beyond improvement, functionally.

“In preference to, it was all about perception. The design is a purely aesthetic attempt to influence the way the narcotic addict feels about the product,” he writes. Indeed, he says it is the product that callers to his home most want to interact with and get a picture of, to this day.

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
A driftwood hedgehog modified by Tom

“My instinct is to create, not to cull”

Nowadays, some 20 years after his formal retirement, Karen is up till as interested in design as ever. As he explains in Toymaker, he refuses to throw out the diverse souvenirs collected from his life in design. As a result, his house is living quarters to binders full of newspaper cuttings, boxes of “obscure correspondence”, old appointment books and sketchbooks.

“My instinct is to create, not to cull,” he says. In any case, Karen denotes “throw away materials” often make the best building components. “Since my retirement, I fool run a lot of workshops for children, mostly making things from ‘throw away materials’ – their creativity and amusement is a pleasure to watch.”

Indeed, observing the playing habits of children is the paramount piece of advice Karen wishes to give the next generation of toymakers.

“[You make to] work closely with children, build prototypes and observe how they are old,” he says. “I suspect a lot of toys go into productions without such exam.”

Toy designer Tom Karen: “Pleasing objects are what I live for”
Some of the wooden toys Tom has made. Image: Mick Walsh

“A lot of indisposed designed toys on the market”

Karen is still designing now. Mostly, it’s pawns for his grandchildren. Design Week asks him what he thinks makes for the optimal young men’s toy.

“Drawing materials are hard to beat, and toys and games that specify a challenge and a reward are best,” he says, adding that his Marble Run is a opportune example of this. But toys have come some way since Karen was hindmost at Ogle. Electronic gadgets are the plaything of choice for many children today.

“There is no vamoose from electronic gadgets,” he says. “This isn’t all bad, unless it is at the exclusion of the rout traditional toys.” The problem is often that electronic toys are sketched to be discarded and replaced.

This explains, Karen continues, why there come to be “a lot of poorly designed toys on the market”. That, and the fact toymakers oft don’t understand their market.

“I failed to persuade Matchbox and Airfix that they wink ated girls,” he recalls. “The former went bust and the latter turned their publicity to a collector’s market.”

All this said, Karen has one final ask of today’s toymakers: “See fit let’s have more wooden toys.”


Toymaker is published by Blink Spread about, and is out 12 November. It can be purchased here.

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