Friday, 13 January 2023

Britain says "Farewell" to Tom Karen its 20th century Giant of Industrial Design and Gentle Genius Toymaker

Tom, who has died at the age of ninety-six, will best be remembered for the work he red and undertook as Managing Director and Chief Designer of 'Ogle Design' from 1962 until 1999. It was here that he oversaw design of the Bush Radio TR130 radio, the Bond Bug and Reliant Scimitar GTE cars, the kid's Raleigh Chopper bike and a series of lorry cabs for Leyland. 

It was, however, for his 'Marble Run' toy, sold by Kiddicraft, that he himself was most proud and would have liked to have been remembered. Certainly his description of its creation provides us with the insight into the workings of his richly creative mind. Although the toy did not make a lot of money for the company, Tom said : 
 'I think I may be more proud of this product than of any car I’ve designed.'

Tom steered Ogle towards toymaking in the late 1960s and said : 'Back then, in the late 1960s, design organisations never touched toys. They left them to the specialist toymakers. Yet the tide was turning: in December 1967 the Design Centre held a small ‘Under Fives’ exhibition showing innovative designs for toys and nursery furniture'.

His first toy was a wooden Lotus 49 car : 'With big back wheels and rubber tyres, and transfers that gave it the look of a real car. Part of the beauty of this toy lay in its fidelity to the original: I remembered from my childhood how much I had valued the accuracy of toys such as my Water Line ships, or my beautiful wooden Lysander (aircraft) '. 'Children do appreciate toys that are beautifully formed – or so I believed'.
In 1970 he made the wooden F1 racing car with real rubber wheels, big at the back, small in front.

With his own young family growing up, Tom said : 'I would make countless playthings for my own children : not just the usual theatrical props, I made many swords, but unique creations which filled them with delight, such as a lovely little wooden desk that I made for Eugenie, with little holes for her yoghurt-pot pen-holders'. 
Tom confessed : 'The truth was, I liked making playthings because I still liked playing myself : I often used to unwind in the evenings assembling little plastic Airfix models of aircraft. Who could be better qualified to explore new toy ideas with a child’s perspective in mind?'

In 2020, at the age of ninety-four and in his autobiography, 'Toymaker', Tom had written : 'My Marble Run means so much to me that I can call every detail of it to mind without reference to a physical example. It is one of my most perfectly resolved designs. What I love about it is that it came from nothing – or almost nothing. It met a hitherto unidentified need; it was beautifully executed; and, as a result, it was spectacularly successful'. 
Giving the reader a glimpse inside his wonderfully creative mind he said :
'Like many of the best ideas, it began with an everyday observation. My sister had given our children a traditional wooden marble run toy. It was a simple wooden device, a bit like an empty picture frame, with three sloping sticks of wood zig-zagging across the space within it, each with a track through which a marble could roll. You dropped a marble in the top and watched it roll down : zig, zag, zig, "clatter". . . That was all'. (link)

Tom said : 'I began to think about how the toy might be improved. Could a more imaginative development of the core concept create a better experience? If so, how? Such questions are the essence of design. I mulled it over. Every now and then, I would make an exploratory drawing, to free my mind to consider the next step.' 'Wouldn’t it be better, I asked myself, if the marble zigged and zagged in a more interesting way? What if you could vary the route? What if there was some element of challenge and reward?'

It was at this point Tom said :  'Suddenly, the answer came to me. What would really transform the game would be to let children build the run themselves. They could build it in different ways, depending on how ambitious or impatient they were feeling. They could still enjoy the sounds and the sights of the marbles rolling down the run, but that would be only part of a much richer satisfaction. I knew at once that this was a winning idea. I also knew that it would only work if the whole thing was thought through to the tiniest detail'. 'At every level, in each possible configuration, it needed to work. In a sense, it was as ambitious as anything I had attempted. At least with a car you only have to design one configuration at a time. But for that very reason I was confident that, if I got it right, my Marble Run would be a brilliant toy'. 

Tom said : 'I wanted with just three kinds of part : bridges, spacers for adding height and hoppers, in which marbles could collect, which were mainly for the start and finish but could also be used in between. Players could construct from them any kind of structure they wanted, weaving and winding in three dimensions like mad plumbing systems. And then they could watch the ‘runs’ they had envisioned being turned into reality by rolling marbles – a set of which would also be included in the game'. 

He continued : 'I have heard from countless adults who played with my Marble Run as children and kept it for their own children. In some cases, the toy is already being enjoyed by a third generation. How many toys can boast that kind of classic status? One of its secrets, I think, is the fact that, like other successful products I have designed for children, including the Chopper, it respects the user. Millions of children around the world have enjoyed playing with the Marble Run. What more can one hope for? Many toys today often seem to be designed with the adults who will pay for them in mind rather than the children who will play with them. It’s all about profit and packaging . No one is thinking about how much lasting satisfaction the child will get from it'.

'The best toys aren’t necessarily those that make the biggest profits, they’re the ones that are also used with love, the kind of thing you’d select if you were woken in the night and told to choose one favourite toy to take with you before fleeing for your life with your family. I like to think that, for many people, the Marble Run has been that kind of toy. It is a gift that keeps on giving. And that means far more to me than the fact that we should have negotiated a more lucrative contract'.  

When Tom referred to one 'favourite toy', he  was reflecting what had happened to him when he was thirteen, in Czechoslovakia, in 1939 and grabbed a few of his die-cast Waterline Warships before he and his family fled the country in fear of their lives with Hitler's invasion and experienced two traumatic years as refugees before achieving sanctuary in Britain.

Tom said : "Our family name was Kohn, which is a Jewish name. Both my parents were totally irreligious but with that name we didn't stand a chance". His father, seen here with his mother, was arrested and : "Somehow, after three days, my father’s release was arranged. The Gestapo kept his passport, but he quickly made arrangements with contacts in the Czechoslovak Air Force to have a new one made. He then escaped to Poland on foot, before flying first to Sweden and then to the UK. There were no goodbyes. One day he was with us; the next, he wasn’t". 

Tom, his mother and brother and sister got to Belgium and then went to the south of France and said : 'We had periods of being hungry and at some stage we were staying in a dreadful unhygienic place' but they got visa permission to travel from Spain to Portugal and then Britain. In 2020, ay the age of ninety-four, Tom said : “I feel so sorry for every kind of refugee. I know what it is like but they have it much worse than I ever did. It is terrible that families and children are drowning in the Channel. It is just appalling”.

The experience of three years as an itinerant refugee in Europe left an indelible mark on him, to the extent that and in 2020 he said : "The British establishment, ridiculously class-bound and traditionalist, had taken me, a maverick designer, to its heart and had made me very happy by doing so. Perhaps it seems odd that, after so much success, I should still have felt the need for the reassurance of an official accolade. But that’s what happens when you’ve been a refugee. You never quite feel safe enough to relax. I know that, no matter what comforts and luxuries I possess today, they can all be taken away from me tomorrow". 

Tom took a series of jobs, before realising he wanted to become a commercial designer and retraining at Central St Martins in London. At the age of thirty in 1956, he provided an interesting insight into his character when, at that time, when he and his Mauritian born, future wife, Nicole, went to see John Osborne’s 'Look Back in Anger' at the Royal Court, starring Kenneth Haigh as Jimmy Porter, which made a deep impression on him. 
He recalled :
'The play had opened more than a year earlier, but the waves of its initial impact had failed to reach Dagenham. Now it hit me with all the explosive power that had scandalised the theatre-going public at its premiere. This incoherent cry of a young man’s rage at establishment complacency felt as though it had been written with me in mind. I saw it repeatedly, and sometimes I felt like standing up and punching the air in support. Life had treated me kindly, compared with what millions had suffered in wartime. Britain had treated me kindly. I had been extremely lucky in material terms. I had made a good start on a career path that made use of my talents. I had a home I liked, and I was even learning to form friendly relationships. What did I have to complain about?' (link)

He continued : 'Yet I was restless, even so. I had, and still have a deep-seated instinct that tells me that things could be better. This makes me hostile to the establishment’s default idea that things are fine as they are. I am always looking for better ways of doing things. Often, in terms of design, at least, I find them, but that’s only half the battle. A good idea needs a receptive audience, otherwise, it risks being lost and forgotten. I hated the thought of that happening'.

'One of the most popular playthings I have created recently consists of  
little more than big blocks of wood. I call them Big Brix. They’re about s
ix inches long with the same proportions as ordinary bricks, but of course they’re wooden: I went to a local wood yard to buy some big lengths to cut down. The idea is that you see how big a tower you can make with the Brix, and part of the fun is the horrendous racket they make when the tower collapses. They’re always the first thing the younger grandchildren run to. I’d like to market Big Brix commercially, as I think they’d be a huge success. I still think about designs for adults too, but the adults I have in mind are basically today’s children'.(link)

Tom's drive to create pleasurable and challenging toys for children and his joy at embracing their company, as seen here with his grandchildren, can be traced back to his own lonely and neglected childhood in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s where he said : 'We lived in Hlinky, a broad, curving, tree-lined avenue in the south-west of the city, far from most of the industry. Locals called it ‘millionnaires’ row’. Our house, known as the 'Kohn Villa', was one of its larger buildings. I was born Thomas Joseph Derrick Paul Kohn. We weren’t a very happy family, but we were rich'.

He said that he and his brother and sister : 'Had everything money could buy and we could not possibly have been considered deprived in any material sense, but normal children would have ridden their bicycle in the park with friends. We had no friends. Our cycling was restricted to circuits of the path around our garden'. The fact that in later life Tom was never happier that when he was surrounded by children as seen in here, with him surrounded by his grandchildren. With children in mind his 'A Little Look at Bottoms' was published in 2004. (link)

Tom said : 'Looking back I can see my childhood was very lonely. At the time 
I hardly realised'. He failed to get on with his elder brother Felix who wouldn't let him play with his Bugatti Type 35 pedal car and his sister was too young to be a companion. He said that when he looked at the portrait his grandfather had painted of him when he was twelve : 'I am surprised how cheerful I look. Perhaps that is why I don't recognise myself'.

In addition, his mother and father's marriage was loveless and : 'There was no conversation at family meals, just relentless oversight of our manners. I spent long hours detained at the dining table until I had finished my last vegetables'. There were no questions about what he had done at school : 'It really wouldn't have taken much effort to work out that my talents and interests related to shapes and appearances of things. When I was two I could recognise twelve different makes of cars. I was never taken to galleries or museums or encouraged to draw, or given any kind of creative start in life'. 

Despite his brilliant and successful career as a designer, Tom never lost that feeling of being the outsider and said he : 'Felt somewhat shunned by the design establishment. In the 1970s and 1980s, London’s big design names tended to rub shoulders at the same fashionable parties, associations and clubs. I was rarely asked to join them, and sometimes I felt that I was specifically excluded. During my time at Ogle, the RSA gave more than 50 designers its Special Honour, the 'Royal Designer for Industry' award, but it never gave one to me. As far as I am aware, neither the Design Museum nor the V&A has ever shown any of my work'. It wasn't until he was ninety-two in 2019, that he finally collected his OBE for 'Services to Design' at Buckingham Palace.

Tom said : 

'Children are born with an urge to build and create. Toys that allow them to explore this urge fascinate them'.


'Deep down, in some sense, I have never fully grown up. I find it easy to relate to children because I think like a child. That’s why I enjoy my grandchildren’s company so much: we see the world in much the same way'.

'Designing things was a doddle. It was everything else that was difficult.'

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