The Raleigh Chopper, the Bond Bug, Marble Run and the Popemobile… the designs of Tom Karen defined the 70s. His child’s-eye-view of the world however, and his desire to move things forwards, are as relevant now as they ever were. We need more designers like him, says Nicolas Roope.
In an ever complexifying world, our logical response is specialisation. We distrust the generalist. If someone can do two things they can’t be as good as someone who can only do one, surely?For me, these times demand the opposite. Connectedness and open-mindedness. The application of a broad set of principles to an equality vast set of possibilities. Hundreds of years have mellowed our distrust of Leonardo da Vinci, the most famous of polymaths. If he were our contemporary we’d think him a quack. Today polymaths are a rare breed, but thanks to The Drum, Tom Karen’s name popped into my inbox one morning – and better still, an invitation to interview him at his home in Cambridge. Tom Karen designed and invented many things that have left an indelible mark on every one of us to have grown up in the UK since the 60s and his unprejudiced, infectious view of the world still powers on in his workshop at the bottom of his garden.Firstly I want to talk about the product that I connect to the most in of all Tom’s creations, the Chopper bike for Raleigh. This design sold millions worldwide and as a kid of the 70s, the Chopper tattooed its elemental coolness on me forever. But what was the Chopper’s magic, and how did Tom divine it?
Raleigh had come to Tom (at Ogle Design, where he was managing director and chief designer for some 37 years) to try to translate the huge success of the Schwinn lowrider from the US to the UK.“Do you know, even in that first meeting with the marketing director, I decided I wanted to have a big wheel at the back and a small wheel at the front because with dragsters, the power comes from the back and that sort of symbolises that. “We gave him no other drawings other than with big wheel and small wheel and then of course having straight tubes seemed to be right. The handlebars were Schwinn type and then I had these make believe tubes on the saddle. I had make believe disc brakes on the back wheel, and all that just added up and of course the gear shift which kids really liked so it just happened together really well. That was the Chopper.”
Tom’s house is populated with colourful bird sculptures and toys he’s made. There are as many works in progress as there are finished products – a sign of someone always open to new ideas and who is always solving new problems. The Chopper’s success resulted from Tom’s child’s-eye-view that respected the complexity by which children read products and how their aspirations for speed and power were equal to those of their grown-up fathers. Borrowing from the vernacular of drag racing, jet planes and easy riders was a potent cocktail for any kid cruising the pavement in the 70s sun. We weren’t kids, we were heroes. Until we slammed on the brakes of course, and slid our soft parts in to the gear stick. But we can forgive Tom for that, because the joy far outweighed the pain.On the surface the Scimitar GTE SE5 might seem like a very different kind of product for a very different kind of market. Indeed, rather than flappy flared five-year-olds, this model became synonymous with Princess Anne, who coveted the car for decades after Mummy and Daddy gave her one for her birthday. The car is a true icon but looking back from today negates how challenging the design was in the 60s, as many of its innovations have become normal since – evidence of the car’s influence. Until this point the word ‘sport’ and ‘estate’ weren’t allowed to inhabit in the same sentence, let alone the same showroom. As Tom put it: “That was the first sporting estate car because estate cars weren't very okay, they were for travelling salesmen and parents with kids and dogs. This looked like a 120-mile an hour Gran Tourismo car, but it had all the advantages of an estate, which included good aerodynamics because it could go faster than a Capri with the same engine. The seats folded down at the back, so you could have a two seater, three seater, four seater and varying amounts of room at the back – sounds familiar, right?” To put it in perspective, Audi sells more Avants than saloons in Europe today, and Tom’s design was the genesis of that category.
For a man very open and playful in approach he is also staunchly practical. Asked why the sports estate was a logical format to push, first he deconstructs the myth of the sports coupé. “It has lousy room in the back and the aerodynamics aren’t as good as the estate because at the top of the windscreen the air flow tends to break up. When you have a long roof it settles down again and that makes for less drag.”The story gives some clues about what motivates Tom and many great designers. The sports estate simply made more sense on so many layers – what was holding it back wasn’t science or engineering, but perception. We thought coupés were sportier, but in fact they were inferior in nearly every respect.Tom’s design craft didn’t just repackage the estate – he had to completely flip the format, creating something that really worked but also inspired people to really want it. Talking to him gave me the sense that his aptitude for design came from a gentle balancing of his interest in engineering with his openness and desire to move things forward, using design as that force to change perceptions, allowing new, better things to emerge.Whether consciously or not, feeding his child-like playful approach led him to work not only with kids’ bikes, but also toys and the brightly coloured sculptures that he now creates with his grandchildren. Making things together with his own children decades earlier led to all kinds of ideas – and one of these even became a kids’ classic, Marble Run. There are two kinds of toys, firstly the ones that look great in ads but only sustain interest for minutes of play, and then there are those presenting a depth of play that brands like Lego give us in spades. To create something in the second group, you really need to empathise with children; that means having a high estimation of their intelligence, will and ability, and that’s exactly what Marble Run does. The brightly coloured parts and modularity gives children a rich array of playful, problem solving experiences that illustrate causal relationships in very clear, simple, playful terms. Thinking about the contrasting examples of toy, bike and car, I concluded that Tom’s great insight was that adults are dumber than they think they are (that’s why they like coupés when logic says they should really like estates) and kids are brighter and sharper than we give them credit for (which is why kids want bikes that are like drag racers).
If our eyes are open as designers and we have the skill to change hearts and minds, there’s little we can’t do. Tom is a greater example of this than most. This is a man who designed a Popemobile, Bush Radio, Bond Bug, and the mighty Reliant Robin. His current projects developing a floating city, wing-shaped fuselage passenger plane and various other concepts are all evidence of this. Whilst Tom will never retire from thinking and designing, we need to create more like him. Designers who smash through the walls that divide disciplines to bring fresh, connected thinking into our complicated world. Tom famously talked Jony Ive out of abandoning his industrial design studies in a moment of doubt. Having met Tom, I can see why Jony’s passion for design was reignited.Nicolas Roope is co-founder of creative agency Poke, founder of Hulger and creator of the Plumen lightbulb.This feature was first published in The Drum's 14 May issue, available for subscribers to download here. If you're not a subscriber you can purchase a copy of the latest issue here or subscribe here.