On Chicago’s South Racine Avenue lies a massive yellow door with a huge creature peeking through the glass frame.
It’s the home of Big Monster Toys, one of the most well respected inventing houses in the world, and within five seconds of stepping inside the ‘office’ (to use the term as loosely as possible), it becomes clear that the inside is just as remarkable as the eye-grabbing exterior.
You are immediately met by a series of creatures, each sculpted by BMT designers, as well as some of the firm’s most popular creations of recent times, including the brand new Spinnyos Giant Yo-ller Coaster, a magnetic take on marble runs that BMT devised for Fisher-Price.
The rest of the office is similarly offbeat, and during a guided tour, it became a genuine struggle to keep a huge daft grin under control. A toy track rattles past above you, continuing its journey circling the entire office, while the office kitchen is housed inside a giant toy train carriage.
One wall is covered is moving cogs. While designed to help nurture creativity, look a little closer at the environment and there’s a more personal touch to each decoration. Each cog represents a member of the company.
Similarly, the toy train is filled with knick-knacks added by each new employee.
“My contribution to the train is the guy in the Cubs cap doing yoga,” says BMT president Donald Rosenwinkel, who backs up what the office aesthetics suggest: the company is like a family.
“I’ve got four amazing partners who run the business, plus 25 employees who are the heart and soul of the place. As the cogs show, it’s about everyone working together.”
Looking back at the family tree of BMT, the firm started life as an off-shoot of Marvin Glass & Associates, creators of MouseTrap, Simon, Rock Em Sock Em Robots and countless other hit toys.
The myths around Glass himself could fill an issue of ToyNews with ease. Not many other toy execs have had Playboy pen a feature on them, but then again, not many were best friends with Hugh Hefner.
Away from the crazy stories, for Rosenwinkel, Glass remains legendary as he pioneered the idea of being an independent toy inventor and helped turn Chicago into the toy invention capital of the world.
“Marvin didn’t want to be a manufacturer; he just wanted to come up with ideas,” says Rosenwinkel. “He wanted to go to manufacturers and try to sell them his ideas.
“They weren’t his ideas, but he was really good at finding creative people and he was a great salesman and a great promoter of the business. Everyone in the industry knew who Marvin was. He insisted that the clients come to him. He had a lavish office filled with fine art and he would wine and dine the clients and they loved to come and see Marvin. They would all end up in Chicago to see him, so it’s only natural that now Chicago is the main hub of toy invention, probably in the world.”
Rosenwinkel worked for Glass for ten years, and when the company folded in 1988, he set up BMT along with several other former Glass employees. Since then, BMT has launched products including the billion dollar making Fashion Polly Pockets, iconic Hot Wheels track Criss Cross Crash, popular games like Brain Warp, Guesstures and UNO Attack, nineties doll hits such as California Roller Baby and Casey Cartwheel as well as recent successes like Jenga Quake and lines for Mattel’s BoomCo brand.
Most are on display at the entrance of the deliberately designed office space, an environment that has been tailor made to get the creative juices flowing.
“To create toys, you have to think like a kid,” says Rosenwinkel. “I don’t think you can do this working in a sterile, cubicle kind of space. You’ve got to be willing to get down on the floor and play a game or push a train around. We want people to come in here and think it’s some kind of wonderland.
“The door outside has become a Chicago landmark,” he adds. “People knock and want to come in, but we don’t let anyone in. We’re very private. There’s a mystique around what we do.”
So what do the inventors at BMT do? Well, the space boasts a recording studio, a digital editing facility, 3D printers and even an area for employees to have a sleep if needed. An idea can go from being a raw concept to a functioning prototype without ever leaving the space.
As well as designers, BMT is home to model makers, engineers, electrical engineers, computer science guys, sculptors, graphic designers, ex-architects and teachers.
Rosenwinkel claims: “We don’t necessarily look for a degree when we hire somebody; we look for a creative spark. Anybody can be a toy inventor.”
And while crowdfunding seems to championing that very mantra, Rosenwinkel is not one of the medium’s biggest fans.
“It’s kind of a pain in the butt for us,” he admits. “It complicates things. It does have its limitations in that it’s focused on a certain demographic. It’s not a great way to sell pre-school toys or even family games."
The firm has seen some fundamental shifts in the way the industry operates since launching back in 1988, with licensing being the biggie.
“I don’t think the industry is in a very good place at all creatively,” says Rosenwinkel. “Licensing is filling the shelves but it’s also strangling the industry a little bit. There are breakthrough products that are amazing and wonderful and we’re hoping to create one of those but so much of it is under the pressure of branding and I don’t think that’s healthy for the industry.”
So where is the silver lining? Rosenwinkel points to independent retailers.
“Indies are vitally important,” he says. “They don’t do the numbers of a major, but they’ll take a risk and get in on something without it needing a big push behind it.
“I love the smaller retailers; I wish they had more muscle than they have. My message to them is keep up the good work.”
Once inside BMT HQ, you notice that the monster that appeared gigantic from the outside is actually instead a vertically challenged beast balancing on four wooden alphabet blocks to sneak a look a passers by. It’s an in-joke for those who make it inside the building and neatly sums up what’s at the heart of BMT’s mantra: fun.