Hans Beck: Inventor of Playmobil children's toys

Thursday 12 February 2009 01:00 GMT

Hans Beck's invention, Playmobil, transformed a small, little-known toy firm into one of the leading brands worldwide, and brought great pleasure to generations of children.

Beck was born in Thuringia, in central Germany, in 1929. The son of a travelling salesman, he was brought up in the small Bavarian town of Zirndorf, near Nuremberg, which had been widely known for its toy manufacturers since the 19th century. At the time, their products, including toy soldiers, were made of tin. In the interwarperiod, composition figures were made from a combination of materials often known as Elastolin. After Hitler gained power, in 1933, the range of figures was reduced with more emphasis being placed on German soldiers and Nazi figures.

The town was also an important military centre and, at the end of the Second World War, the German army was ordered to blow up its base to avoid capture by the Americans. On 18 April 1945 the mayor saved what was left of Zirndorf by raising the white flag as the Americans advanced towards it. Liberated former forced labourers plundered the town, and Zirndorf's inhabitants also had to make room for German refugees.

Beck was then 16 and an enthusiastic model maker, especially for his brothers and sisters. Yet there seemed little prospect of finding work inthe battered toy industry which was no longer allowed to make war toys. Instead, he served his time as acabinet maker, a much sought-after skill as West Germany worked to resurrect its economy.

In 1958, however, Beck was picked from 20 candidates to work as aproduct designer at the family-owned toy manufacturer Geobra Brandstätter, which had been making toyssince 1921. His enthusiasm and skills were recognised by the owner, Horst Brandstätter, and by 1971 he was head designer.

With the global oil crisis of the early 1970s driving up the price of plastics, Brandstätter came up with the economical solution of shrinking the firm's product line and engaged Beck to carry it out. Brandstätter thought, based on his suggestion, that Beck would produce tiny cars, but instead he invented a tiny universe of 7.5cm plastic figures, with movable heads, arms and legs, detachable equipment and benign faces, that became known as Playmobil. When these were presented at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1974, many buyers expressed their doubts. However, the figures were an immediate hit with children.

"No horror, no superficial violence, no short-lived trends" was Beck's motto, which some say was a reaction to the Grimm's tales he was told as a child. With some 2.2 billion figures – building workers, American Indians, knights, Romans, pirates, police, doctors – sold to date, the range is the foundation of the company's prosperity and is exported to 70 nations. It grew to employ nearly 3,000 people and had sales last year of €452m. With Playmobil, Brandstätter has become the world's third largest toy manufacturer after Lego and Mattel. In 2000 it opened a Fun Park in Zirkdorf. Others followed in Paris, Malta, Athens, Orlando and Palm Beach.

Beck retired in 1998, but it was not a happy retirement. He felt thathis work had not been properly recognised, and that he had not receivedthe fame and wealth due to him. Up to the time of his death, he was still involved in a legal battle with his former employer.

David Childs

Hans Beck, toy designer: born Thuringia, Germany 6 May 1929; married (oneson); died Markdorf am Bodensee, 30 January 2009.

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