Words: Charlotte Philby
Photos: Barney Beech

“I’m listening to Linda Ronstadt, I listen to this same song every morning”, Ken Garland announces, ushering me into the studio on the first floor of the rambling house in Camden Town where he has lived with his wife, Wanda, for the past 50 years. It is here, too, on this once ramshackle North London street, that 82-year-old Garland created the prototypes for some of the most iconic toys and games in history – and continues to work today.

Having joined Design magazine as art editor in the 1950s, Ken Garland is still one of the most important graphic designers in the world. He is also responsible for some of Galt’s most iconic creations – not least Connect, which sold half a million copies across the globe, the original marble run, and Anymals.

“One day, after I was well in with them having done their logo and shopfronts and stationery and suchlike, Galt’s sales director came to me and said ‘What do you think of our toys and games?’ I said ‘Well you’ve got a lot of good things’. He said ‘Yes and what?’ I said ‘Some of them aren’t so good’. He said ‘Could you do better?’ I said ‘Yes’.”

And so he did.

“There was a feeling at the time, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, that games and toys should improve the mind. I wasn’t mad about improving the mind, I thought the mind just improved itself. You didn’t need to do much, what you needed as children was to have as much fun as they could,” Garland recalls. “There was the idea that play was an introduction to adult behaviour, which it is – but let’s not go on about it.”

When it comes to games that children want to play, he adds, the prospect of winning is a serious incentive. “For children most things are a competition. Although we were trying to find non-competitive toys – that was the ethos of the time – it isn’t the nature of games and toys to be non-competitive.”

Children playing Connect – Image Harriet Crowder

Over the course of the next few years, Garland and his team pioneered a new approach. It was, he recalls, common practise among toy-makers of the time to simply design things, make them, then stick them on shop shelves without ever bothering to ask the opinion of a child. Instead, Garland started using children as guinea pigs; every week he and his wife would invite local kids to join his own kids at their home on Albert Street to try out his latest creations.

One day, he recalls, there was a trial of Connect, which Garland created together with his associate Bob Chapman. It is a game which involves connecting a series of squares printed with lines, with the aim of getting rid of all your cards first. One of the kids trialling it pointed out it was possible to have a tie, if two people were left with the same number of cards. “I asked this boy what he thought we should do. He thought hard and then said ‘If two people are left with the same number of cards, the youngest should win.’ So that’s what we did’.”

There was a feeling at the time that games and toys should improve the mind. I wasn’t mad about improving the mind, I thought the mind just improved itself.

Having grown up in Devon, one of two children, Garland joined art school in Bristol – the first of three he would go on to attend – straight from the grammar where he was being primed for a career in academia. Once there, he recalls, he “energised” his fellow students to hold a protest about the lack of life-drawing on offer at the college: “We had a sit-in, until we got bored and they kicked us out and I was suspended, briefly, then called back to speak to the principle who said ‘Garland, we’ve been thinking it over and we’ve decided yes we will offer you life-drawing’. I said ‘Thank you very much, when do we start?’ He said ‘There is no “we”, just “you”‘. I said ‘What about the others?’ He said ‘Never mind the others’. So I went and chatted with my chums, they said ‘Go on, take it, we weren’t that mad about it anyway’. So I deserted them.”

Galt Toys advertising – Image Harriet Crowder

Having been conscripted into the army aged 18, as a Private (with a brief spell as a Lance Corporal until he was “naughty” and had his stripes removed), Garland says he “loved firing guns, throwing hand grenades, sticking bayonets into straw: “I had a terrific time, I even liked marching. I didn’t do anything to do with art apart doing some drawings of the officers which gave me some credence with them.” But by the time he got out two years later, he was gagging to leave.

Ken at his studio of 50 years in Camden, London.

It was in London as a pupil at Central School of Arts & Crafts that Garland met Jesse Collins, the tutor who would go onto to get him his first job as an art editor on craft magazine Furnishings. “Jesse Collins said ‘You’re going to be an art editor,’ I said ‘What’s that?’ He said ‘You’ll find out’. So I got there and I found out very quickly.” It was also at Central that he met his wife, Wanda. “I was smoking a cigarette on the landing and then downstairs on fifth floor came this person with this gorgeous smile. I thought it was directed solely at me. It wasn’t, she distributed it everywhere. But I got keen on that smile…”

Some 62 years later, the couple have two children, Ruth and Benjamin, both now in their fifties, and three grandchildren. “When Wanda was pregnant with Ruth it was rather difficult, she had something called toxemia [now known as preclampsia], which meant that she had to go into hospital to have an induced birth which was the last thing she wanted. I was afraid my wife might die in hospital.”

Jesse Collins said “You’re going to be an art editor,” I said “What’s that?” He said “You’ll find out”. So I got there and I found out very quickly.

Children Playing – Image Ken Garland

This was 1954, in those days men were not allowed to be present at a caesarean. “A couple of years later when our son came along I was there, which was unusual in those days. We both made a huge fuss about me being at the birth and it was lovely. What difference did children make to our lives? A huge difference. You accept children because they are natural but my word are they not a huge add-on to your life. Unbelievable. They take so much time but in the end it’s rewarding.”

Two years after that, the same year that his son was born, Garland went to work at Design magazine, a hugely prestigious role. During his six years there he began to take on freelance clients, including Galt, until it got to the stage where he was working all weekend: “I couldn’t go on like this I had to give up the art editor job or the freelance work, so I decided to give up art editor, helped on by an older designer who said ‘Leave while you’re ahead, it’s a wonderful thing to do’. What a wonderful idea. Painful but great. There’s nothing worse than to leave when everyone thinks ‘God, he should have left a year ago’.”

The wall of Ken's studio

Decades later, Garland, who grew up in Devon one of two children, has adopted further interests, among them graffiti and a particular kind of hat, which he has been building a collection of over the the past 35 years. “Now it is a very popular kind of hat for certain types of people, although I don’t know what type of people. Every now and then someone thinks I must be Muslim so they shout out ‘as-salamu alaykum’, so I say ‘wa alaikum assalam’ and go on my way. Then they say ‘Are you a Muslim?’ I say ‘Certainly not, I’m a convinced athiest. And they look puzzled.”

I quit my job – it was an older designer who said “Leave while you’re ahead, it’s a wonderful thing to do”

Until 2009, he ran a small design group called Ken Garland and Associates. “Then I decided not to take any more commissioned work. I felt there were some things I needed to do in photography, book design and writing that wanted to concentrate on.” Since then, Ken and Wanda launched a small publishing venture called Pudkin books – all monographs, the first nine books were of his photographs, all taken with a small hand-held digital camera, the last three were other people’s work.

Now every morning at 9am, he comes downstairs, turns on Linda Ronstadt, before switching Radio 4, interrupted by his favourite tunes which he plays on tape – Buddy Holly, Debussy quartets, John Williams, Thomas Tallis’ Fantasia – and sets to work.

At the moment, this means putting together a lecture about “transitory art of the street”; and an exhibition called ‘Look Closer, Here Be Monsters’, featuring close-up images of grains of wood, stains, beautifully intricate photographic portraits of smashed glass.

“I’m interested in things that are here today, gone tomorrow. I originally started getting very enthusiastic, and still am, about graffiti, but of course graffiti has now become a sort of steady, permanent art form almost.” For the time being, that is enough to keep him going. “I will retire when dementia takes over or physical disability. Not until then,” he states firmly.

Good job, too.

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