Child at heart: inside toy designer Tom Karen’s fun-filled home

Twenty years after he retired, the designer behind the Raleigh Chopper and Marble Run is busier than ever

In Tom Karen’s Cambridge house, toys, games and sculptures pepper every surface. They drop hints about his long career: from the early 1960s to the late 1990s, Karen was chief designer at Ogle Design, the UK firm responsible for the Raleigh Chopper, the children’s game Marble Run, as well as cars, lorry cabs, crash test dummies, radios and washing machines. He has a Chopper permanently propped up in the front room, and points to its key innovation, the large back wheel: “It symbolised the power going through the back, like a Formula One car.”

At 91, and 20 years after he officially retired, Karen is still designing, for his own pleasure: bird sculptures, corrugated cardboard trees and games. A garage serves as his workshop and is filled with inventions and works in progress; a drill, bandsaw and sander are lined up on an old table. “I’m happier here than anywhere else,” he says. But the back of the house – a kitchen, dining room and studio – is where he spends most of his time. The bright, south-facing space has big windows, a glass door leading out into the long garden, and a side extension with an orange-painted steel ceiling joist.

Toys on a table

His modest Victorian terrace is a far cry from his childhood home, an imposing building in the Czech city of Brno. “We had a swimming pool, tennis court, huge greenhouse, vegetable garden, servants…” he recalls. “The city is ringed with wooded hills; Cambridge is a bit flat in comparison.” The wealth came from a brickworks set up by his great-grandfather. In 1939, when Karen was 13, the family fled as the German army advanced. They travelled from Belgium to France to Portugal, before landing in the UK in 1942. The surname Kohn was changed to Karen when he was naturalised here.

Karen’s enthusiasm for toy-making is driven by his interest in children’s development. “The age range I love best of all is up to four or five. They go through a learning curve that is extraordinary.” His house is “geared to having children around”, notably his six grandchildren, aged between five and 12, who visit from London, Yorkshire and Zambia. “I always have lots of felt pens and paper around.”

Chopper bike

Sculptures and figurines adorn shelves, tables and cabinets, including a wooden hippo from Denmark with moving parts. “He’s so clever – I just adore him.” Karen himself has created an outsize mobile phone and hedgehog from driftwood and rusty nails, as well as a tiger from Tesco packaging. He loves making birds; with their wire skeletons and paper bodies, they are a common theme throughout the house. “I often wonder if it’s because of my pet in Brno – a tame jackdaw called Kako. He loved me; he would fly around the house and sit on my pillow.”

He gives the impression there are a lot more inventions in him yet. “I have a butterfly mind, and I’m still flooded with ideas,” Karen says. As for his house, he says, with some understatement: “I have a knack for filling every surface.”

House rules

Pet interiors hate Free-standing baths.
Design hero Nicolas Hayek, the founder of Swatch.
Best things about your neighbourhood It’s a cul de sac, so we all know and support one another.
And worst Cambridge could do with a few hills.
Favourite room The kitchen. I can eat here, I have my computer, and I can draw and make things here.
One thing you’d change about your home It would be nice if somebody helped me tidy up my workshop.

  • Designs On Britain, an exhibition championing Jewish émigrés’ contribution to 20th century design, runs until 15 April 2018 at the Jewish Museum, London NW1.
Clare Dowdy

The GuardianTramp

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