I have to admit that I’d never heard of Tom Karen. At the age of 94, he’s now published an autobiography which details his life and career. A distinguished industrial designer, he oversaw the design of iconic products such as the Marble Run toy, the Raleigh Chopper bike, Leyland lorry cabs, the Bush TR130 radio and one of the Popemobiles. He deserves to be more widely known outside the world of industrial design, I think.
I liked the format of this book, with each chapter based on an object in Tom Karen’s home, whether a concept sketch, photograph, carving or sculpture. The narrative perspective was interesting too, written as if he invited the reader into his home and was showing you the items. However, the content wasn’t always so fascinating for me. The beginning of his story is very engaging, as he describes his privileged childhood in Brno (Czechoslovakia) and how his family ended up escaping during the Second World War. Tom began a new life as a refugee in England. It’s also compelling yet sad to read about his troubled marriage, which produced four children. He was a workaholic and wasn’t around much for his family, which he still feels regret for.
There are a few chapters on vehicle design, which I had to mostly skim-read because I have zero interest in cars, trucks and planes. When the content is about toys, creativity and children’s play, it’s more readable. It was heartwarming to read about how in his retirement he is actually enjoying life, having focused on crafts (particularly with birds and dogs as subjects). His tone is confident throughout, evidencing the self-belief one needs to succeed. I think it would have been better not to mention his admiration of Extinction Rebellion, however.
First published in 2020.