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Born in Greiz, Thuringia, Beck grew up in the town of Zirndorf. He trained as a cabinet maker and made small toy vehicles and figures for his younger siblings. He presented his model airplanes to Horst Brandstätter, owner of local toy company Geobra Brandstätter, who took him on, and asked him to develop toy figures for children.
As a hobby Beck built ultra-lightweight model aircraft for flying indoors. He competed in the FAI World Championships in Debrecen, Hungary in 1966 and won the individual title in the F1D class. In the early 1960s the planes had a wing span of 900 mm (550 mm today) and were made from a balsa wood frame covered with a film of acetone lacquer. They were powered by a small rubber band wound to over 1,700 turns and could fly for over 40 minutes in large halls or airship hangars. The whole aeroplane weighed only 1.2 grams.
Beck spent three years developing the figurines with interchangeable accessories that became Playmobil. He conducted research that allowed him to develop a toy that would be flexible (unlike tin soldiers), not too complex, that would fit in an average child's hand and have a face like a child's drawing (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 greatly increased the price of plastics derived from oil. This prompted Geobra Brandstätter to consider products that generated more revenue for less plastic raw material than the hula-hoops and other large toys they had been producing. Beck's figurines offered a possible solution. The company commissioned Beck to develop a series of figures with interchangeable parts.
"Playmobil is a toy that doesn't impose specific play patterns on children," Beck has remarked, "but rather stimulates their imagination."
In 1974, the company put the series on show in its display rooms. Visitors were initially reluctant to accept the toy. The toy was shown at that year's International Toy Fair in Nuremberg. It 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 since been released as Playmobil products.
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]
- "FAI World Championship Indoor class F1D 1966". Free Flight News. Free Flight News. Retrieved 24 December 2015.
- 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