EUROPE: Czech account

He defined the transport of our past and has painted the future of air travel. Helen Evenden raises a glass to Czech-born industrial designer Tom Karen on the eve of his 40th anniversary with Ogle

The man who lit up our youth with the Helta Skelta, the Raleigh Chopper and the Reliant Robin, this week comes of age, celebrating 40 years with Ogle, the company which manufactured them.

Tom Karen, chairman of Ogle Models and Prototypes, arguably one of the UK’s most successful industrial and transport design companies, can also count the crash test dummy, the Scimitar GTE car and the Bush radio among his design successes.

Some would rank Karen’s achievements alongside those of industrial design legends such as Peter Behrens, Norman bel Geddes and Henry Dreyfuss. Yet few designers can actually identify the man responsible for designing so many era-defining products.

Ogle’s 28-strong team is still housed in the unlikely location of Letchworth Garden City.

The company has been a ‘good training ground’ for designers, Karen says. An understatement, surely: former employees include RCA vehicle design visiting professor and head of design at Rover, Peter Stevens; Geoff Upex, Land Rover design director; chief designer at Jaguar, Julian Thomson; and Martin Smith, design director at Opel, Germany.

Karen’s anniversary party takes place tomorrow (Thursday) at the Royal College of Art, a fitting location when you consider he has been involved with the RCA since the days of Misha Black, and is still an inspiring and frequent visitor to the vehicle design department. He also supports design education as a governor, tutor, designer in residence and sponsor of an automotive bursary at the Royal Society of Arts.

Karen grew up in Brno, the second largest town in the Czech Republic, and he has e e product, industrial and vehicle design in his genes. His family includes a successful ‘bricks and cement’ Viennese industrialist grandfather who painted Franz Joseph and other ‘crowned heads with money bags’.

After studying aircraft engineering at Loughborough University, Karen trained in industrial design at London’s Central St Martins College of Art and Design and spent ten years working in the aircraft industry before becoming an industrial designer.

He joined Ogle, then called David Ogle Associates, in 1959, when it was a four-strong team, but left to work for Ford, Hotpoint and Philips. But he was wooed back in 1962 after founder David Ogle died in a tragic car accident. John Ogier, Ogle’s partner, took charge of the company, installing Karen as managing director.

The Ogle that Karen inherited was the first industrial design office in the UK capable of designing a car body, building it and mounting it on a chassis ready to be driven away. He turned the company, which had an annual turnover of less than £25 000 into an internationally recognised concern with a £3m turnover and over 80 staff at its peak.

Asking Karen to identify his favourite projects is like asking a father to choose between his children. ‘Products which make money should be recognised as successful, but the Bond Bug was the most fun,’ he says. ‘Getting such a crazy vehicle into production was great.’

After 40 years service, his career deserves to be celebrated. m

Helen Evenden is head of education at the Design Museum and tutor in vehicle design at the Royal College of Art

Tom Karen’s advice

Worship good form

‘My aim has always been to create products that are well designed sculpturally, tactile, inviting to use and easy to live with. At the same time they must use a minimum number of components and be easy to manufacture’

Make virtues out of necessities

‘Making silk purses out of sows’ ears is a challenge that intrigues me’

Challenge briefs

‘Don’t be afraid to questions and rewrite briefs in order to produce something better than the client expects’

Have faith in good ideas

‘Undertake a project ‘on spec’ to break new ground and pioneer new ideas’

Create inviting objects

‘I don’t like car radios with 24 buttons’

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