Toy makers dip into area’s creative pool

Perhaps only in the Bay Area would inspiration for a twisty interconnected plastic toy, made to captivate and calm children down, come from an artist-turned-Zen master.

Richard X. Zawitz, formerly a Zen Buddhist artist, founded South San Francisco-based Tangle Inc. from his San Francisco home in 1981. “It’s not your typical toy,’’ said Scott Masline, senior vice president of marketing, of the 18-piece snap-together toy that twists wildly in the palm of your hand. “It comes out of the art world,’’ he said.

Tangle, which has licensing deals with the SpongeBob and Dora The Explorer brands, has sold 90 million units since its founding, through venues such as drug stores, museums and even McDonald’s. The toy market is a hard one to crack into, however, according to industry experts.

“It’s tough to make it in this industry,” said veteran toy industry executive and inventor Saul Jodel, who founded South San Francisco’s The Original Toymakers, a concept toy company. The focus on television marketing can sink a company if done wrong, he said.

“You have to produce a product that resonates with an audience,’’ said Moss Kardener, vice president of brand development and innovation for San Francisco-based board game maker University Games. And popular culture references are key, he added. Like Tangle, with its licensed toy deals, University Games relies on Eric Carle’s popular “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”

California leads the country with 17 doll and stuffed-toy manufacturers and 117 game, toy and children’s vehicles producers, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report for 2004, the latest data available on the $22 billion dollar industry that employs more than 18,000 people nationwide.

Some of the toy industry’s top global manufacturers are based in the state, including Mattel Inc. in El Segundo and educational game-maker LeapFrog Enterprises, based in Emeryville.

Imagination is important in toy-making, and the Bay Area is a great find for innovative workers, Wild Planet’s Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Chapman said. The “labor pool here is a big plus — there are a lot of creative people,” she said.

Wild Planet, a privately held San Francisco-based company recognized for its surveillance and adventure products, is an industry leader, Jodel said. The owner, San Francisco native Daniel Grossman, “has a little niche. He’s got a piece of the industry that no one else has,” Jodel said. The company’s 60 city employees take up 13,000 square feet on the 13th floor of a Financial District building.

Wild Planet’s Spy Gear line of toys includes night goggles that can see up to a distance of 25 feet in the dark and digital camera sunglasses with a pocket remote. “We give kids the tools to play,” spokeswoman Kim Bratcher said.

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