Designing the future

Tom Karen was ahead of his time: two of his 30-year-old designs have recently been put back into production.

Born in Vienna and brought up in the former Czechoslovakia, Karen found his way across war-torn Europe to Britain in 1942 to study aeronautical engineering, so he’s come full circle. Now in retirement, he continues on his mission to reinvent airliner cabins, bending the ears of Boeing and Airbus whenever he can. His design studies for superwide cabins with more social seating, separate bag stores rather than ever-larger and more dangerous overhead lockers, and even spacious, single-sex toilets rather than the shared hell-holes of today are the work of a man whose main aim is to civilise through design. He did it for motorists and truck-drivers: why not Economy class passengers?

I could tell you a lot more about Karen – about the way his home is filled with his quirky sculptures and collages, many made of found objects. Or his charmingly offbeat animal book for very young children: A Little Look at Bottoms. And he’s a man, I’m pleased to say, who can talk lucidly and with passion about the design of washing machines. Oh yes, there’s much more to Karen than cars.

Tom Karen’s Reyner Banham memorial lecture, Designing the Future, is at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 on Friday 13 May at 4pm

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