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Sam Jacob on Tom Karen, the designer of the Raleigh Chopper

Sam Jacob is beguiled by the designer of the Raleigh Chopper and the marble run toy

Make More With Less: Tom Karen in conversation with Stephen Hayward. 10 February, Central Saint Martins,London WC1B 4AP. www.csm.arts.ac.uk

If you are over 30, it’s likely that part of your soul is Tom Karen-shaped. As the managing director and chief designer of Ogle Design, from 1962 until 1999 he was responsible for a range of products that occupy a special place in the British psyche. On stage last month at Central Saint Martins college in London, surrounded by his work, Karen, 84, discussed his varied life and career.

The Ogle output was vast and varied, and stood between the utilitarian and the fantastical. It spanned crash test dummies (‘the baby was so cute’, says Karen), aeroplane fit-outs, household products from radios to baths to toys, and a range of vehicles, from the Chopper bike to Leyland trucks and Popemobiles.

The Chopper was an image bike. It’s impossible not to imagine you’re Easy Rider Jr when you’re riding it

Ogle operated from what we might call a ‘total design’ compound, still active today. Here, products could be conceived and developed to a point where prototypes could roll out of its gates and on to the road. It was a place that, as Karen describes, could do things no-one else could do. It’s also a place that could only thrive in a particular period of British design history. Between 1962 and the late 1970s – Ogle’s purple patch – burgeoning consumer culture intersected with Britain’s manufacturing industry. In this time, design evolved from post-war austerity to deliver the kind of novelty and difference demanded by increasingly sophisticated consumers. It became part of a broader phenomenon where objects were not just functional, but part of the mediated landscape of popular culture.

We see this in two of Karen’s most iconic designs. The Raleigh Chopper was the ultimate boy’s dream machine, folding the feel of a dragster into a child’s bike. In its big-wheel-small-wheel arrangement, its stick-shift gears, its ribbed, padded seat and its looping handlebars, the Chopper was an image bike. Each part is suggestive, so much so it’s impossible not to imagine you are Easy Rider Jr when riding it. Its form doesn’t come from its functionality. As Karen admits: ‘It’s not a good bike… Like a Mini, a terrible car. I had one of course.’ This bad-but-good ethos marked a new phase in industrial design.

Karen’s own take on the Mini came in the form of the Bond Bug, that strange wedge-shaped three-wheeler. It was produced with a 1970s twist on Fordism, in any-colour-you-like-as-long-as-it’s-orange (which, Karen tells us, wasn’t period panache but simply the cheapest paint on the market). The Bug was essentially a fibreglass body fixed to a Reliant chassis – car as product, rather than car as engineering. Its economy drove the design to a set of unique conclusions, including the lift-up canopy instead of doors (which saved on the number of hinges), its single windscreen wiper, its use of existing fittings and the shape of its panels, which allowed quick release from their moulds.

The Reliant Scimitar GTE had a ‘particularly lickable’ form

Talking about another of his car designs, the Reliant Scimitar GTE (1968), Karen described how its rising ‘waistline’, created what he calls as a ‘particularly lickable’ form. In Karen’s discussion of the esoterica of car design – of waistlines (the way a designer articulates the change in height from front to back) and shut lines (the points where panels come together) – he described the car as a ‘fantastically complex piece of sculpture’. He continued, ‘If Top Gear talked intelligently about car design, it could be seen as an art form’, and he argued that car design, more than other kinds of design art, was a popular art form worthy of serious exploration.

 

Karen grew up in a large house in the Czech city of Brno before the Second World War, served by a staff of 17. Forced to flee, his family eventually arrived as refugees in the UK to a very different kind of life – a small house with an outside toilet. Perhaps these experiences led to the idea of pleasure in the everyday, and that a sense of luxury could be created out of the most economical means. It’s this quality Karen demonstrates at the end of his talk, first by amplifying the satisfying clunk of his plastic marble run (another fixture from 1970s childhoods), and lastly with a homemade rocket he launched into the air with a wooden spoon. His survey of the Ogle archive takes us from trucks to toys. It’s often hard to tell the difference, because the same freewheeling sensibility informed both.

Resume: Lickable, loveable and memorable– hurrah for Karen’s bad-but-good design

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