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Culture

Creating Happiness in a World of Plastic

They bring smiles to their owners, big and small, and they smile back. More than 1.7 billion Playmobil figures now populate childrens’ rooms around the world. It all began 30 years ago in the midst of an energy crisis.

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Boys love Playmobil, but the company wants girls to fall in love with its new products.

With over 1.7 billion citizens, it would be the biggest country in the world – even bigger than China. And the happiest. If it were real.

Alas, the eternally smiling, 7.5 centimeter small Playmobil figures made in Zirndorf near Nuremberg are only figures in a massive toy nation. How huge? If you stretched out the arms of every Playmobil figure ever sold and lined them up arm-in-arm, they would create a human chain that circled the globe two times.

Turning an oil crisis into a toy boom

Every Playmobil sold today is a descendant of the original toy created by Horst Brandstätter. During the beginning of the 1970s, he used the international oil crisis to his advantage to create a boom in toy sales. Because oil prices also fueled an increase in plastic prices, the products that were being created in Brandstätter’s toy factory -- like a mini riding tractor -- became too expensive to make. He needed to develop something smaller and more inexpensive to produce. Thus, Playmobil was born.

The toy’s developers began researching drawings of people made by children and found that the face was the largest and most emphasized detail in their pictures. That’s why they created figures with the oversized heads and hollowed bodies. Each face is comprised of only three parts: two saucer eyes and a permanent smile.

They’re still being made that way today, 30 years later. The only thing that’s changed from the originals are the figures’ somewhat clunky bodies with moveable arms and legs and the two hands that can grasp objects. The more recent generations of Playmobil people have hands that can be turned, and keeping with the times, the female figures can wear pants instead of skirts if they desire.

Playmobil Bauarbeiter

A Playmobil original

Knights, carpenters and Indians were the first Playmobil figures to come off the assembly line 30 years ago. Since then, the company has expanded its offerings to include over 600 hundred different characters in a dizzying array of thematic lines that include Noah’s Ark, Vikings, stewardesses and much more. There are farmers, priests, kings. Black, white and red faces. The Nation of Playmobil figures populate both biblical times and today’s Information Age. They’re multicultural and they span every class in society.

A fantasy world for kids and adult children

Playmobil’s secret of success lies in the figures’ simple design, says Gisela Kupiak, a company spokeswoman. The design stimulates children’s imaginations and lets them live out their dreams in a fantasy play world. Boys, especially, have long been crazy about the adventurous and, in some case, techno-fied toys. In fact, they represent 70 percent of Playmobil’s approximately €268 million in annual sales.

But kids aren’t alone in their love of Playmobil’s plastic fantasy world. A recently opened exhibition in the southern German city of Speyer, organized to honor Playmobil’s 30th anniversary, also brings together the Playmobil treasures of private collectors. The show includes a nine-foot tall knight’s castle built in the style of “Lord of the Rings” by 31-year-old collector Oliver Deeg. Another collector, 36-year-old Daniela Schabenstiel has also put her own Playmobil creation on display: A miniature opera with balconies, wardrobes and candelabras. With his 5,200 figure collection, Martin Cierjaks has recreated the wars of the Baroque Era.

“The scenarios can be used to explain world and cultural history and interpret them for children,” says Wolfgang Leitmeyer, vice director of the Speyer Historical Museum, reflecting on the mini worlds on display. “That encourages people to continue playing thoughtfully.”

For a greater idea of the collective fascination with Playmobil, a query on Ebay, the great oracle of modern trends, is telling. Ebay’s German-language site includes more than 20,000 entries for Playmobil items. For some of the products, you can find bids of €250 and higher. And you can bet that the Playmobil people themselves aren’t the only ones to find joy in the bidding wars.

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