Roger Tallon: Pioneering and prolific industrial designer behind early TGV and Eurostar trains

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The Independent Online

Roger Tallon was a French designer who gained a reputation for his versatility and innovation, and was widely regarded as one of the pioneers of French industrial design, although he never received the international recognition one might have expected considering the breadth and quality of his projects.

As well as creating a diverse collection of over 400 products, ranging from crockery to cameras, he was the force behind the design of the iconic TGV high-speed train and the design director of the Eurostar trains. A true renaissance man of the mid-century, Tallon was was always at the forefront of innovative, highly engineered designs both materially and structurally.

Born in Paris on 6 May 1929, Roger Tallon was the product of a broken home. As a child he dreamt of becoming a pilot, but the "galloricain" was seduced by American gadgets and products. After graduating with an engineering degree in 1950, Tallon completed his military service before briefly becoming an anarchist and following Dadaism.

Tallon started his career with Caterpillar France, before quickly securing a consultancy role with the European subsidiary of DuPont de Nemours, where he designed the machinery for cellophane packaging. However, his big break came in 1953 when he joined the design consultancy Technès, created by the father of industrial design, Jacques Viénot, in 1949; he also started the first design magazine. Tallon integrated the technical and artistic departments, becoming its director in 1960. With the death of its founder in 1959, he became the company's sole director.

A couple of years earlier, Tallon had established the first design course in France at the School of Applied Arts in Paris. In 1963, he created the design department of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

A huge admirer of the designer and architect Jean Prouvé, Tallon and his team created over 400 products from 1953 to 1973, including such diverse items as a motorcycle (1955); the Japy typewriter (1958); the Wimpy chair (1960); the Super Caravelle fridge (Frigidaire) in 1960; the world's first helicoid metal staircase (1964), which became part of the Museum of Modern Art collection; and the funicular railway in Paris (1970).

In 1964 he developed the Téléavia P111, the earliest portable television, which went on sale in 1966 despite Tallon's and the board's reservations as to the value of such a product. However, with its innovative round lines and contours it led the way for the new generation of televisions – and went on to gain cult status.

Over the years, Tallon's experience as a consultant with huge multinational companies such as Peugeot, Kodak, Fenwick and US giants General Motors made him realise that the profession of industrial designer was still relatively unknown in France. He therefore fought to introduce the word "design" into the French vernacular and into his teaching. In 1973, Tallon established the multidisciplinary design consultancy Design Programmes SA and worked in all industry sectors; they designed ski boots for Salomon, toothbrushes for Fluocaril and a range of plastic oil cans for Elf. In 1974, with Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, he created a concept aircraft cabin for Air France.

In the early 1970s, Tallon was recruited, with a handful of other designers, by Lip, one of France's oldest watchmakers, as part of their programme to have avant-garde timepieces created by luminaries from the world of art and design. Given carte blanche, he created some highly original timepieces which remain as visionary today as they did 40 years ago.

Tallon went on to gain an international reputation for his transportation design, which included work for Mexico City's underground system and the first TGV models (1969). 1974 saw the SNCF introduce Corail carriages as part of the first stage of the modernisation of France's railway infrastructure. Tallon wanted to change the whole travelling experience. He changed the ergonomics: comfort, sound, lighting, colours – in fact anything and everything, including the railway stations themselves, their signage and even staff uniforms with the help of couturier Michel Schreiber.

In 1983, he co-founded the design partnership ASDA & Partners with Pierre Paulin and Schreiber, and continued designing trains, including the Eurostar shuttle for Eurotunnel (1987) and the high-speed TGV-Atlantique (1988) for SNCF. In 1994, his company joined Euro RSCG, where he was in charge of both the Texan and Canadian TGV programmes. He also worked on the Finnish Railways overhaul and was a consultant on Moscow's bus network.

Over the years, Tallon received many awards, including the French National Grand Prix for industrial design (1985) and Insignia of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres from the president of the SNCF (1992). In 2008, he bequeathed all his files and records to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris.

Roger Tallon, designer: born Paris, France 6 May 1929; died Paris 20 October 2011.