Playmobil inventor dies at 79

The news came out earlier last week: Hans Beck, the man who created Playmobil toys, had died on January 30.

The German inventor of Playmobil toys, which became an instant success when they hit the market 35 years ago, has died at the age of 79.

Hans Beck, a furniture maker and model enthusiast, came up with the toy in 1974 after being asked to create a new and collectible play concept. It was initially suggested he might work on a range of cars. Instead Beck came up with the dolls and earned himself a place in toy history.

He worked according to his motto: "no horror, no superficial violence, no short-lived trends." Of course, he also said that no jumbo jets, no aliens and no dinosaurs should be in the line, and all three of those have shown up over the years.

Beck created a whole fantasy world of figures with moving arms and legs that bend at the hip, wear snap-on clothes, and continue to capture the imagination of children all over the world.

More than 2.2 billion figures have been produced and sold in over 70 countries. At just under 3" tall, and promoted as "ideal for a child's grip", the figures are meant to represent real life average adult height of 5'7".

The original figures were a knight, a construction worker and an indian. But the toy empire expanded hugely over the years and, alongside fairies, firefighters, nurses, jewel thieves, Egyptologists, prisoners, police dogs and airport security staff are now part of the Playmobil universe.

The trigger for the toy's creation was the global oil crisis of the early 1970s, when the price of plastics increased sixfold. Large toys which Brandstätter had produced up until then - such as hula hoops - became prohibitively expensive and it was forced to rethink its product line.

Beck was asked to develop a "system of play which can be expanded and which through relatively small parts made out of the expensive synthetic material offers a high value product".

Beck worked for Brandstätter for 40 years until 1998. In that time he became head of design. He lived with his wife near Lake Constance in southern Germany where he died following a serious illness on Friday.

The success of Brandstätter, which employs 3,000 staff and posted $408 million in sales last year, is based on the continued popularity of Playmobil. The figures have won numerous prizes over the years for their quality as well as their educational potential. The company has resisted calls to equip the figures for the digital age by adding sound effects and mechanized features, arguing that it does not want to betray Beck's original concept.

Our own Rustin Parr is a huge fan of Playmobil, and says "I very much appreciate the aesthetic he brought to his work and the overall style of the Playmobil universe. It's very unique amongst toys and collectibles, which is no doubt the source of its long success and passionate fanbase." Beck trained his own replacements before retiring in 1998, so hopefully the Playmobil brand will continue on as it has for so many years.

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