One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe

The inventor of Playmobil began his toymaking career as a big brother.

Hans Beck's parents divorced when he was young, then each remarried and had more children. Mr. Beck and his sister soon had eight younger half-brothers and -sisters.

"When I was about 10, I started making toys for them," he says. He made "little cars and trucks, little figures, dolls, some furniture for the dolls." But he didn't dream of becoming a toy designer. The profession "didn't really exist" when he was growing up in Zirndorf, Germany.

He was a teenager when World War II ended, and he trained as a cabinetmaker. He also started making model airplanes. He was going to make model planes for a company, but it didn't work out. The owner of the company asked him to think about toy figures for children instead. That was in 1971.

"I looked around to see what was on the market," Beck says. A lot of what he found were the tin soldiers that had been around since the 1800s. They couldn't bend or move. They didn't fit well into the adventure stories children like to invent.

Dealers weren't so sure

The figure Beck developed was just under three inches tall. It fit well in a child's hand, and it could move its head, arms, hands, and legs. On its face was painted a benign smile.

"My figures were quite simple, but they allowed children room for their imagination," he says.

He wanted to test the new figures. So when he had children over to visit, "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were. They accepted them right away.... They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them."

Today, Playmobil (pronounced "play-mo-BEEL") figures come with elaborate equipment and accessories, including real flashing lights on the fire trucks, a tiny treasure map for the pirates, even ball-bearing in-line skates. But "the central point has always been the figure, not the surroundings," Beck says.

The owner of the company wasn't very interested in the figures at first, but he let Beck keep working on them.

Oddly, what helped put them into children's hands was the worldwide oil crisis of 1973-74.

Plastic is made from oil. So when oil suddenly got more expensive, so did the plastic pellets Beck's company needed to make toys. Now it had to do more with the plastic it bought. Instead of making, say, a plastic beach bucket, it made sense to use that plastic to make something with more to it: a collection of Playmobil figures, for instance.

Toy figures would cost more than a bucket, but kids could do a lot more with them, and parents would feel they were getting more for their money. The company, of course, would be happy with more money.

But when Playmobil figures were shown to toy wholesalers (they sell toys to toy stores), not everyone liked them.

"People didn't realize how much you could do with them," Beck says. But a Dutch firm agreed to buy a whole year's production! The rest is history.

Keeping toy secrets safe

Today, Playmobil's offices are outside of Zirndorf, near Nuremberg, Germany, a city that has been important in the toy business for hundreds of years. Beck's office has lots of windows that overlook the pretty countryside. There's also a place where children can play with almost all the Playmobil figures there are.

The office has a special "inner sanctum." You can't get in without a special card to open the door. That's so the toys they're working on will stay secret.

By now, so many Playmobil figures have been produced that, if they were real people and had their own country, it would be the most populous nation on earth: 1.3 billion!

Today's Playmobil figures look pretty much as they did in the beginning. The first year the company had three "themes": medieval knights, construction workers, and American Indians. Beck's favorite is the pirate ship, introduced in 1978.

Now there's a Playmobil train that includes a car sprayed with graffiti and a "street action" collection showing a racially mixed group of kids playing basketball.

It's clear from the letters kids send to Playmobil that a lot of them think of themselves as part owners of the company. They have lots of ideas. The letters (many with drawings) are carefully logged, answered, and filed. Ideas are tallied so that the firm can tell how many letter-writers asked for Playmobil cavemen this year, for instance.

But the company that Beck works for, the Brandsttter Group, is run by grownups. And at times, grownups say no. No, for instance, to a real, working siren on the fire truck: "Sirens would get on parents' nerves," the company wrote back. No to dinosaurs: Human figures are central in the Playmobil universe, and there were no humans when dinosaurs lived.

No to submarines and an airport with jumbo jets: To keep to the Playmobil scale, the subs or jets would have to be too big.

There's a fair bit of demand for ancient Greeks and Romans, especially from fifth-graders beginning to study them in school. But the company says no to them, too: Fifth-graders are getting too old for Playmobil, and the company says it wouldn't make sense to produce a theme for an age group that's about to "graduate."

Historically Accurate, Yes; But Not Politically Correct

In a glass case in his office, Playmobil inventor Hans Beck displays some of his favorite creations, including some that never made it to stores.

A band of medieval troubadours with a muzzled bear sold in Germany, but did poorly in England. "Cruelty to animals!" was the protest. A group of medieval hunters with a deer they have just killed also flopped in England, where a lot of people oppose hunting, Mr. Beck says.

Another collection "we had second thoughts about," as he puts it, and never brought to market featured medieval punishments, including toy stocks for Playmobil baddies to put their (benignly smiling) little heads and hands in. There was even a "baker's cage." In the Middle Ages, bakers whose loaves were larger or smaller than the standard size were put in such cages and dunked once or twice in the nearest river. (This didn't generally hurt them, but it did encourage them to get it right next time.)

A group of 19th-century Chinese railroad workers, complete with a cart full of perfect little railroad ties, was never in stores, either. These so-called coolies proved to be politically incorrect. It is a fact, though, as Beck points out, that gangs of Chinese laborers helped build America's transcontinental railroad.

"When you're presenting a picture of a time past, you have to show all sides of it," the toymaker insists. But this has to be done with Fingerspitzengefuhl, he says. The German word means "a special sensitivity in your fingertips." What Beck means is that you have to do it carefully and sensitively.

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