Tom Karen’s designs brought freshness and dynamism to the 70’s in Britain | Design

meIf you grew up in the ’70s in Britain, you lived in Tom Karen’s world. If you were a kid, you probably played Karen’s amazing Marble Run, which is still in production today. If you weren’t cruising the streets aboard a Raleigh Chopper, you’d be the envy of the kid who was. And you’ve been waiting for the day when they invented a spacecraft that hovered on Earth like Luke Skywalker in Star Wars (and probably still is). If I were a little older, I might have driven the sleek new Scimitar GTE, as Princess Anne did. Or, if I’m a little trickier, maybe a three-wheeled Robin. Karen, who died at the age of 96had a hand in all of these and many other products.

That so many of Karen’s designs speak to her era is no coincidence, but Karen wasn’t exactly interested in style or modernity. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he was also very hands-on, but he understood that good design wasn’t just a matter of form and function, but also of imagination.

Take the chopper. Karen’s Ogle is approached by Raleigh’s marketing director Design in 1968 to create a bicycle specifically for children, and Karen seemed to know exactly what his young – and mostly male – audience wanted: high handlebars and the L-shaped saddle of an Easy Rider chopper; a centrally mounted gear stick from a 1970s muscle car; Giant rear wheel, like a drag racer, complete with dummy springs and disc brakes. It was radical, quirky, and playful, but with its straight-tube frame, the bike was also stylish-looking and functionally built. Raleigh has sold an estimated 1.5 million of them.

Rally helicopter in 1971.
Rally helicopter in 1971. Photo: Bill Zygmant/Rex Features

Adult products were no different. The Scimitar GTE, built in 1968, was by no means a superior performer, but in terms of ambition and post-war fun, it certainly looked the part, with its high, lofty contours and radical “hatchback”—innovations that would soon become fixtures of car design. The bright orange three-wheeled Bond Bug was inspired by the youthful poppy aesthetic of the Mini, but also in The future of science fiction for the designers of the 60s Archigram, with its fiberglass body and lifting parachute. No wonder George Lucas turned to him to design the Star Wars Earth Racer (which was adapted from the Bond Bug).

The Bond Bug’s most enduring successor, Relant Robin, became associated with the naffer side of 1970s and 1980s Britain, though Karen resented the fact that the popular Trotters vehicle from the sitcom Only Fools and Horses was actually a believer. Mine, from the 1950s, is not the most elegant Robin by Karen. Admittedly, the Robin was still a bit short—”for people who can’t afford a proper bike,” joked Jasper Carrott—but then again, it was practical: economical, adaptable, and technically qualified as a motorcycle, which means you didn’t need to. to a full licence, to drive one.

Relying Robin.
Relying Robin. photo: today/rex

In his long career, Karen has designed a lot—everything from home appliances to toys, planes, trucks, crash test dummies, toys, and sculptures. He was a real pioneer. Speaking of Marble Run, which he considered his most inspiring creation, he wrote: “My brain seems programmed to enable me to juggle a number of ideas at the same time: function, form, and method to make something. I let ideas seep into my mind and when they took a certain form, I was I jot it down in my sketchbook (never been without it). This should clear my mind before I tackle more problems.” Needless to say, he’s got a lot of sketchbooks.

Having come to Britain from Czechoslovakia, aged 16, halfway through the Second World War, Karen must have experienced Britain during one of its bleakest periods, but in his hilarious and practical way he seemed committed to providing joy to posterity.

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