The Steiff brand has been making the world’s finest teddy bears, dolls and animals for more than 135 years. They have created a large archive of playful and durable baby toys, to some of the most detailed and collectible items, which can be proudly found at the Steiff Museum. With over 170,000 visitors each year, it is known as a top tourist attraction across Europe, and a proud asset to German history.
Simone Pürckhauer has been the Managing Director of the Steiff Museum for over 10 years and is a key member of the brand’s long history of success. Her fascinating job entails directing the museum experience, infusing an environment that cherishes the Steiff brand traditions whilst welcoming new innovations and challenges. MiND had the magical opportunity to visit the Museum itself and get a warmer glimpse into Simone’s cuddly career.
Steiff has an interesting and emotional heritage. Could you tell us a bit about this history?
Simone Pürckhauer: With a company history of over 135 years, Margarete Steiff GmbH is one of the oldest and best-known brands in Germany. The fascinating history of this world renown, traditional German firm, known for its famous ‘button in the ear’, began in 1877 when the 30-year old Margarete Steiff founded a felt clothing business.
What is truly revolutionary about the company’s history is not only that the founder of this internationally successful firm was a woman, which was very unusual for the time, but that this extraordinary business woman suffered from a serious illness. Apollonia Margarete Steiff was born on the 24th of July 1847 to a master builder in Giengen an der Brenz, in Swabia, and soon fell ill with polio. She was confined to a wheelchair for life and could hardly move her right arm. These unfavourable circumstances, however, did not stop her from learning to use a sewing machine. With the money she earned, she bought herself her own sewing machine – the first in the small town of Giengen. She worked as a seamstress and soon became one of the most sought after dressmakers and founded a felt clothing business. She started making pin cushions for her friends – the internationally known Filzelefäntle or felt elephant. This was so popular amongst children that, unintentionally, it became the first plush and child-appropriate toy. Until today, children are enjoying this innovative idea.
Steiff became a family business. Margarete ran the plush animal firm alongside her nephews Richard, Paul and Franz. At first, the mail order business was carried out from her parents’ house then she obtained the first offices in the Mühlstraße in Giengen in 1889. On the 3rd of March 1893, the felt company was entered into the commercial register as ‘Filzwarenfabrik Giengen’. At this point in time, Mrs Steiff had four employees and home seamstresses and a turnover of 40,000 Marks, which rapidly increased. Expansion came on in leaps and bounds. In 1899, products were sold to England, Italy and the Netherlands. France, Russia and the US soon followed. The range of stuffed animals constantly expanded and soon included monkeys, donkeys, camels and other animals alongside the elephant. By 1901, the 38-page price list contained 500 products.
In 1902, her nephew Richard designed the first teddy bear using numerous sketches of bears. He carried out his research in the Stuttgart zoo, which helped him create true-to-nature ursine body shapes and develop a prototype, which could convince his aunt. The first teddy, the 55 PB Teddy Bear, was born. It was 55cm tall, ‘PB’ entailing plush and movable (beweglich). After initial difficulties with sales, it was first presented at the Leipzig toy fair in 1903. By the end of the fair, no visitor had shown any interest in the toy until the last minute when an American appeared saying he was looking for a new type of toy. He was fascinated by the movable plush bears and immediately ordered 3,000 bears. This was the point of a breakthrough for the Margarete Steiff GmbH – the interest in child-friendly toys rose along with demand.
Today, the firm’s headquarters are still in Giengen in the avant-garde glass buildings from 1903. In 2005, an elliptical, brass-coloured building was added in the shape of a giant button – the Steiff Museum. This houses all the company’s products, from the first elephant ‘elefäntle’, to life-sized elephants, to the first movable Steiff stuffed animal and the first accessible Steiff animal, the snake slide.
How do you feel the characteristic of a family business has been continued into the company today?
Simone Pürckhauer: The firm is still partly owned by the Steiff family. The board of family members is involved in important strategic decisions such as the appointment of the CEO. Some family members still live close by and take part in all important Steiff events such as the Steiff Summer or the Steiff Christmas Market. Additionally, they give interviews about the company, the family behind it and its heritage.
Would you consider Steiff and adult brand or a children’s toy company?
Simone Pürckhauer: First and foremost Steiff produces soft toys for children and has always done so. However, the classic collections and limited editions by Steiff are valuable pieces of handcraft and are not categorised as toys. There are a lot of adult Steiff fans that collect these unique editions. To this extent, there is also the Steiff Club which consists of 30.000 grown-up members.
A Steiff toy is often regarded as a family heirloom, what is it about Steiff that makes it so inherently special?
Simone Pürckhauer: Since the 1st of November 1904, each animal sports a metal button in its ear. This trademark was introduced by Steiff’s nephew, Franz, to protect the products from counterfeits, distinguish them from the competition and to be used as a Steiff quality guarantee. Margarete Steiff’s motto ‘Only the best is good enough for children’ still forms the philosophy of the company. Even after 135 years, the trademark ‘Steiff button in ear’ still stands for tradition, meticulous safety testing, international appeal, great aesthetics and the highest quality. The unmistakeable products made from high-quality materials and realistic designs still enjoy unique worldwide fame and popularity with children and adults alike. Due to the high quality of the materials, a Steiff animal is a companion from childhood to old age and can be passed on from generation to generation.
Steiff creates special toys to commemorate important events, such as the births of HRH Prince George and HRH Princess Charlotte. Could you tell us about some other important creations?
Steiff has produced a number of bears for celebrities and big international events. Amongst others, Steiff has produced the Karl Lagerfeld bear, a teddy bear version of the famous designer, the Steiff Knut Polar bear based on the little polar bear cub that was born at the Berlin Zoo in 2006 and the Steiff Octoberfest bear to celebrate the renown, annual German beer festival.
Steiff has also collaborated with many luxury brands, what are some of the most notable partnerships and what became of these toys?
Simone Pürckhauer: Steiff has collaborated with numerous famous brands. One of the most renown collaborations is the Karl Lagerfeld bear, which Steiff designed for the famous designer. A very limited amount of this bear was sold for 1000 Euros each. Often these animals become valuable artefacts that are traded amongst collectors.
Steiff products are sold online and in store, what do you anticipate for the futures of these markets in the toy world?
Simone Pürckhauer: Our aim is to further advance the online store and online presence of the brand while maintaining the highest quality standards.
A toy shop has a characteristic of being a magical experience, what do you want the customer to experience in your stores?
Simone Pürckhauer: A brand that is primarily aimed at babies and children needs to arouse strong feelings, entice and entertain. These are the emotions customers should feel in our stores.
The Steiff Museum opened in 2005 and has since been very successful. Do you have any special projects planned for the Museum?
Simone Pürckhauer: The Steiff Museum organises an annual four-day summer fair with an entertainment program for kids, show acts, a teddy bear auction and Steiff exhibitors from all over the world. The Steiff summer 2017 is planned for the beginning of July 2017.
Additionally, the Steiff museum organises a Christmas market together with the town of Giengen at the beginning of December, which takes place in front of the Steiff Museum.
What markets are the most popular and where do you aim to grow the brand?
Simone Pürckhauer: Steiff is most popular in the German, Austrian and Swiss markets. This is also due to the fact that in these countries Steiff animals are seen as cultural artefacts and for many people are a necessity in every playroom.
We aim to grow the brand in Asia and the United States.
How do you envision the future of Steiff, do you have any new store openings? Perhaps you have some exciting plans for the brand?
Simone Pürckhauer: Absolutely, in 2017, for example, we are planning a new store opening in Stuttgart.