Tom Karen

Letchworth Garden City Museum has been hosting an exhibition of the work of designer Tom Karen over the past year. It is still on show and worth a visit. Sadly, Tom Karen died recently, aged 96. This exhibition is a chance to catch up on a lifetime of designing. Many iconic contributions came from his work at Ogle Design which have been based in Letchworth since starting in 1954 by David Ogle. Designs included marble run, Raleigh Chopper, Bond Bug and Scimitar GTE. As a company Ogle still thrives with a focus on model making. This was a strength of the company in the 60’s and 70’s and marked a hand-in-glove relationship between design and the exploration of ideas through physical objects. Tom Karen and Ogle exemplified how physical manifestations of ideas are integral parts of design process. This is a strong theme in design research and practice, especially maker spaces facilitated by the new technologies of object and model making such as additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping. Needless to say, Ogle Ltd are at the forefront of these making and modelling technologies.

Tom continued to design since retirement especially in work for children. He engaged creatively with everybody who came in touch with him and in true designer style loved to blow his own trumpet. His house was a delight, full of made objects, especially painted figures of birds, lovely surfaces, colours and shapes. On a personal note I interviewed Tom Karen in Cambridge, back in 2003, along with Claudia Eckert at the Engineering Design Centre in Cambridge, for a project “Across Design”. It was examining the varieties of design process, both formally and in how designers described (or gave witness to) their own processes. This memorable visit, had a nice spin off for teaching in T211, Design and Designing, chaired by Steve Garner. At the end of Block 4 there is a short case on Tom Karen designs and designing.

The exhibition in Letchworth is due to close soon.  There are designs, models and sketches, as well as films about Tom and copies of his books.






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