BY Tom Morton in Profiles | 06 JUN 02
Featured in
Issue 68

Plastic People

Getting real with Playmobil toys

BY Tom Morton in Profiles | 06 JUN 02

The OPEC oil crisis of the early 1970s left most Western companies looking pretty shabby, scraping egg off their frowning faces and contemplating a decade's worth of fiscal bad hair days. Most considered an image change, but few spruced themselves up quite as nicely as Germany's Brandstätter Corporation. Originally a lock-fitting business, Brandstätter decided to confront the insecurities of the era with a smiling face and a bouffant so perfect that even the harshest desert storm couldn't blow a single hair out of place. At the Nuremberg toy fair of 1974 the company unveiled its new product. Playmobil had arrived and the Western world suddenly seemed a safer place.

The secret of Brandstätter's success was to make its new toy range terribly, terminally boring. Playmobil isn't about the dark futurology of a wind-up Dalek or the limitless possibilities of Lego; it's about the plastic preservation of the status quo. Its basic unit is a 7 cm-high figurine with articulated shoulders, a perpetual grin and a shiny, press-on haircut. The figurines inhabit a generalized town, rendered in durable plastic primaries, that favours clarity of design over the intricate detail of the real world. With its smiling, wipe-clean dustmen, kids with sports injuries and multilingual snack stands, Playmobil town could be any prosperous northern European settlement. Local colour doesn't figure much in the toys' daily existence (they're policed, after all, by Interpol), and this has the odd effect of bringing their socio-economic lives to the fore. Splitting their time between keeping their town booming and enjoying its bland leisure opportunities, the plastic population embodies a pan-European ideal of productive employment and clean-nosed fun. It may be crashingly dull to play with, but Playmobil is a perfect primer in bourgeois citizenship.

Kids, of course, have a genius for subverting their toys, but the grubbiest little mind would struggle to undermine Playmobil's wholesome world. While you can dress Action Man up in Barbie's ball-gown or transform Optimus Prime into a crippled travesty, Brandstätter's products aren't so amenable to apostate playtimes. The best my sister and I managed was pulling off all their plastic haircuts to create a vast chemotherapy ward, although even then the figures' smiling faces suggested a sunny children's hospital rather than the harrowing theatre of pain we'd envisaged. Perhaps it's a problem of characterization. Most toy lines come complete with a complex back story and a whiff of moral drama. Playmobil figures are clone-like public servants, differentiated only by the tools of their trade. Although the range includes cops and firefighters, the Playmobil arsonist is unlikely to grace the next Nuremberg toy fair. With no shady corners in Brandstätter's story-less city, it's hard to find somewhere to improvise darker, more interesting games.

Recent years have seen Brandstätter try to inject a little excitement into its product, adding knights, pirates and American Civil War-era Yankee soldiers to the Playmobil portfolio. The last of these seems an odd choice, given that Confederate troops aren't in production and that Brandstätter's obviously not contemplating a cotton plantation playset. Maybe it's another case of the company avoiding moral polarities (even the pirates look pretty estranged from rum, sodomy and the lash), or maybe it can't help projecting bourgeois idealism on to the intricate nastiness of the past. Whatever Brandstätter's reasons, I feel slightly aggrieved at these historical newcomers sullying my childhood's plastic landscape. I've started to appreciate the clean design of Playmobil's town folk, the soothing simplicity of their dull diggers, cars and traffic lights. Which proves, I suppose, something I'd long suspected - it's grown-ups who choose these toys for their children. Left to their own devices, kids would soon wipe the smile off Playmobil's face.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.