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Born in Greiz, Thuringia, Beck grew up in the town of Zirndorf, beginning his toy making career as a creator of little vehicles and figures for his younger siblings. Beck received training as a cabinetmaker but worked simultaneously on model airplanes, a product he pitched to the company Geobra Brandstätter. The owner of the company, Horst Brandstätter, asked him to develop toy figures for children, instead.
One of his hobbies was aeromodelling in its most lightweight category — indoor models. These ultralight flying models, with wing spans of 900 mm in the early 1960s (550 mm today), were covered with microfilm (acetone lacquer poured and dried on water) and built from extra tiny balsa wood beams (0,9 x 0,7 mm). Powered by a tiny rubber band turned to over 1,700 turns, they could fly for over 40 minutes in large halls or airship hangars. The whole aeroplane weighed only 1.2 grams. Beck was a champion in this category and won the 1966 World Champion title in Debrecen, Hungary.
Beck spent three years developing what became Playmobil. He conducted research that allowed him to develop a toy that would be flexible (unlike tin soldiers), not too complex, to fit in an average child's hand and have a facial design based on child's drawing (e.g. having a large head, smile, and no nose). "I would put the little figures in their hands without saying anything about what they were," Beck remarked. "They accepted them right away... They invented little scenarios for them. They never grew tired of playing with them." Horst Brandstätter was not initially convinced of the viability of Beck's idea, but allowed the inventor to continue developing the product.
The 1973 oil crisis made it possible for Playmobil to be considered a viable product. Rising oil prices imposed on Geobra Brandstätter (whose headquarters are at Zirndorf), for whom Beck worked as Head of Development, demanded that the company turn to products that required less solid plastic material (during the 1960s, the company had been producing hoola-hoops and large plastic toys). More had to be done with the plastic the company bought.
The company commissioned Beck to develop an entire series. "Playmobil is a toy that doesn't impose specific play patterns on children," Beck has remarked, "but rather stimulates their imagination." The system of customizable toys, with its interchangeable parts, offered unlimited possibilities for re-combination and expansion.
In 1974, the company put the series on show in its display rooms. Visitors were initially reluctant to accept the toy. Nevertheless, the toy was shown at the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg, which was taking place that year. The toy proved popular with children. A Dutch firm subsequently agreed to buy a whole year's production. Playmobil began to be sold worldwide in 1975.
The first Playmobil sets were of Native Americans, construction workers and knights. Beck once mentioned in an interview that a jumbo jet, alien figures, and dinosaurs should never be introduced as Playmobil sets, but all three have been introduced into the Playmobil universe since that time.
After training a group of product designers to take his place, Beck retired in 1998, just prior to the 25th birthday of the introduction of Playmobil.
He died at the age of 79 on 30 January 2009, after a serious illness.
- Hevesi, Dennis (6 February 2009). "Hans Beck, Designer of Little Plastic People, Dies at 79". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 February 2009.
- Frey, George; Alexis Kunsak (4 February 2009). "Hans Beck, creator of Playmobil toys, dead at 79". The Associated Press. Retrieved 8 February 2009.[dead link]
- One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe
- Der Vater der Playmobil-Figuren ist tot
- Mr Playmobile Dies at Age 79 Yahoo News, 2 February 2009
- Hans Beck: The Father of Playmobil
- Ruth Walker "One Man's Tiny Plastic Universe", Christian Science Monitor, 1997
- Best Classic Toys: 2003
- Profile at Playmobil official web site