As of 2014, there were 2.7 billion Playmobil people in the world, according to the Playmobil company’s Web site — about twice the population of China. If they all held hands and formed a line, it would circle the globe more than three times. There are so many Playmobil people because kids are wild for them and though that mystifies some parents, they have no choice but to buy them.
For all this, the world has Horst Brandstätter to thank, the man his employees affectionately called “Herr Playmobil.” The moustachioed German toy executive first commissioned the tiny plastic figurines more than four decades ago.
Brandstätter died June 3 after a short illness, his company announced Monday. He was 81.
Brandstätter didn’t invent Playmobil, the favorite of stop-motion animators and bane of bare feet everywhere. But it’s largely thanks to him that the toys exist.
Thanks to him and the oil crisis of the early 1970s.
The crisis made plastic, the main material for most of the products manufactured by Geobra Brandstätter, impossibly expensive. Brandstätter himself was a champion of plastic — he’d shepherded his family’s company away from metal toys and toward plastic ones after joining in 1952 at age 19. Six years later, the move paid off when he introduced plastic hula hoops to Europe.
But in 1973, Brandstätter couldn’t afford to make a plastic bucket with oil that cost four times the normal price, and parents couldn’t afford to buy one. So he asked his chief model maker, a man named Hans Beck, to come up with a toy that would provide “the maximum amount of play value for the minimum amount of plastic,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
The result was a nearly three-inch figurine with cupped hands and a smile like a sliver of moon. The little guys didn’t have noses because Beck thought those were best left to the imagination, according to a 2014 Telegraph profile of the toy. And though their arms and legs swiveled in their tiny shoulder and hip sockets, they didn’t bend — it would have made the toys topple over, Beck believed, and children would be frustrated.
One of the first Playmobils was a miniature knight clad in green pants and armor, with a tiny sword that fit into one curved hand and a penny-size shield for the other. With him came a collection of comrades, dressed in an array of other colors, a pack of horses and supplies for a mini medieval camp. All told, it was about as much plastic as would fit in the palms of an adult’s cupped hands. But it was enough to keep children occupied for hours.
“Their success at that time saved us from bankruptcy,” Brandstätter had said of the toys, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Soon there were Playmobil construction workers and astronauts, princesses and policemen, zoo keepers and train conductors. Each came with an array of accessories — a space station for the astronauts, checkpoints for the policemen, tiny plastic enclosures and tiny plastic animals for the zoo keepers to tend. There’s even a Playmobil Martin Luther — oddly the company’s all-time fastest-selling toy — though he doesn’t come with 95 Playmobil theses nailed to a door.
“For kids’ imaginations, what I also like about them is the randomness — a sword will fit in the hand of a doctor, someone else can wear the pirate’s hat,” Silas Amos, a U.K. design strategy consultant, told the Wall Street Journal.
Kids went wild over them and the success of the toy made Brandstätter one of Germany’s 100 richest men. Though his interest extends beyond playtime — his company also manufactures a self-watering plastic planter, an idea he came up with when he wanted one himself, according to Forbes.
Brandstätter was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame last year, the 40th anniversary of his most famous product. Though he still had a home in Zindorf, home to the Geobra Brandstätter headquarters, he spent his winters in Florida. He is survived by two sons, Klaus, 61, and Conny, 59.
“People seeing the Playmobil figure for the first time are usually unimpressed; it looks so simple,” Brandstätter once said, according to Agence France-Presse. “Adults don’t immediately see the value of Playmobil. Its appeal is in the stories which it triggers in children’s heads.”