Hans Beck, 79

Inventor of Popular Playmobil Toys

In this April 21, 1998 file photo Hans Beck, the creator of the Playmobil figures, poses in Zirndorf, Germany, on his last day with the Geobra Brandstaetter GmbH & Co. before retiring.
In this April 21, 1998 file photo Hans Beck, the creator of the Playmobil figures, poses in Zirndorf, Germany, on his last day with the Geobra Brandstaetter GmbH & Co. before retiring. (Frank Boxler - AP)
By Alexander F. Remington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Hans Beck, 79, a toy inventor who created the Playmobil line of three-inch pirates, cowboys and knights, which found a vast audience worldwide, died Jan. 30 at his home near Lake Constance in southern Germany. No cause of death was reported.

Plastic is made from oil, so the global oil shock of the 1970s threatened the entire product line of toy company Geobra Brandstätter, where Mr. Beck worked. Forced to think small, he began designing a line of miniature toys in 1971, and they were unveiled three years later at an industry fair for toymakers and distributors.

Most of the fair attendees were unconvinced by the expressionless plastic men with snappable clothing and accessories. Only one dealer bought the toys, ordering a year's supply. He was right. They were a smash once they hit the shelves in 1974, with more than $1 million worth sold by year's end. More than 2 billion figures have since been sold, according to the company.

Originally, just three sets were available -- a knight, a construction worker and an American Indian -- but many more were introduced in later years, including Mr. Beck's favorite, the pirate ship, in 1978.

Inspired by children's drawings, the heads of Playmobil (pronounced "play-mo-BEEL") figures were noseless and had exaggerated features. They became known for their simple, stylized design -- moving arms and legs, but no knees -- and minute detail.

The construction worker sets contained traffic cones, street signs, traffic lights, ladders, hammers, shovels, pails and more. The tools could all be snapped into the fists of the toy hands. Knights and American Indians both came with horses.

Mr. Beck's motto for Playmobil was "no horror, no superficial violence, no short-lived trends." But the company didn't always follow his imagination, as his prototypes for medieval punishments and Chinese railroad workers were killed by company higher-ups. "We had second thoughts," he explained to the Christian Science Monitor.

Hans Beck was born May 6, 1929, in Thuringia, a state at the southwestern tip of what later became East Germany. He was raised in the Bavarian town of Zirndorf, now Playmobil headquarters. He had a sister and eight half siblings, and he began making toys for them when he was 10.

He trained as a cabinetmaker, but he became interested in model airplanes and applied to work for his hometown toy company in 1958. When he went for the job interview, he spoke little, except to say that he didn't have much experience making toys and was not an expert on children.

But he impressed his future boss, Horst Brandstätter. "I thought, 'Well, here's man with a brain,' " Brandstätter told the Palm Beach Post. "He's not talking, he's thinking!"

Mr. Beck retired 40 years after joining the company. Despite a few flops, including medieval muzzled bears that angered animal rights activists, the company has five Playmobil theme parks around the world and annual sales exceeding $400 million. All thanks to a three-inch-tall toy.

Speaking of the Playmobil figures, Mr. Beck told the Business Ethics Quarterly: "This is a toy the child can apply his fantasy to, can change at every moment. He can create new ideas, new stories, new interactions."

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