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If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know the name Rick Henke. Raised in Kiel Germany, Henke immigrated to the US in the 1970s and founded the Goric Marketing Group USA in 1994. With his background in engineering and his involvement in developing playground safety standards in Canada, Rick was an early creator of integrated playscapes, considered a hallmark of the modern era of playground design.

Horst Henke, though, is a name you might be less aware of. But the story of Rick’s younger brother, who associates describe as a magnanimous salesman with remarkable intuition for children’s sense of play, is just as fascinating. Horst’s design of whimsically crafted wooden fantasy horses, trains, wagons, and automobiles, combined with his instincts for deal-making, is one of the reasons wooden playgrounds gained so much popularity across the United States and Canada in the 1980s.

“I think there was a sense that using wood and natural materials was more agreeable to kids, which was in vogue then,” said Rob Steck, a landscape architect for the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who worked closely with Horst on more than 40 neighborhood pocket parks and playgrounds in the 1980s and 90s.

One of those projects, Steck says, was an ambitious playground at Cambridge Common, near Harvard. The design featured a massive, custom-built finished timber play structure, bright orange slides, rope climbers, and a gathering deck for parents. What was novel about the playground, though, as with many of Horst’s projects, was not so much the equipment, but the grounding philosophy. “He had an awareness of children and child development, a playfulness about him that often times you try to find but can’t,” Steck says. “A lot equipment from suppliers and manufacturers— they could be selling you anything. They don’t have an awareness level for who it is for, what it is supposed to be doing, what is trying to accomplish. They could be selling you washing machines, cars, or play equipment. Horst wasn’t like that.”

Custom-built timber fortress

Horst’s appreciation for the imaginative capacity of children was likely forged early on, though not under idyllic conditions. His mother was  a master milliner and owner of a ladies fashion store, and his father died in World War II defending their hometown . Along with his brother and five sisters, Horst grew up in the ruins of post-war Germany. “Think of Aleppo, Syria today. That’s what Germany looked like at the time,” says his brother Rick, recalling their early years.

Nevertheless the experience was formative, both for the effectuated boundlessness of the bomb-ravaged landscape and the recognition of the vulnerability of children. “In some ways, it was one large adventure playground. I don’t know if that reflects our thinking now. Back then, we were basically interested in the upbringing of children. We were interested in seeing children grow up in an environment conducive for enhancing their well-being,” Rick says.

Children’s Playgrounds Inc.
In 1975, the two brothers co-founded and managed Children’s Playgrounds Inc. in Toronto, Canada. Recognizing the learning and developmental benefits of adventure playgrounds in England and Scandanavia, where children were given license to a range of outdoor activities in natural areas, the Henkes saw an opportunity to transform the North American playground market with wooden structures. “At the time there were no wooden playgrounds in America and Canada. Most were built in steel and not very appealing for creative play and the more physical aspects of growing up. We started to build wooden equipment and bring natural elements and materials into urban environments,” Rick says.

At first the Henke’s sold mainly to Toronto’s school department and landscape firms in the city—their most popular items were handsomely crafted wooden structures for children ages 2-5. The approach evolved, leading to the birth of the first playscape, an integrated playground in which equipment and activities flow continuously across a series of related structures. Horst did sales and administration, and Rick handled the technical work. But, in some ways, their roles were interchangeable. “I could be him on the phone and he could be me, if we wanted that,” Rick says.

Little by little, the business grew, spreading through Canada and entering the U.S. in 1984. A major reason for the growth, Rick says, was that Children’s Playgrounds’ equipment was the first of its kind to be geared not only for able-bodied children, but also children with mobility limitations, including those using wheelchairs. Horst’s business sense was also critical to expansion: “He was very instrumental in design, and in marketing new playground equipment in the U.S. He understood advertising and marketing, bringing new concepts to the marketplace,” Rick says.

Playscapes weren’t immediately embraced in the United States, but the work caught on with enough schools, school boards, hospitals, and city park departments to make business profitable. By the mid-1990s, Children’s Playgrounds was designing custom equipment for large projects in cities such as New York and Cleveland. “There weren’t a lot of options at the time. There might be a slide or chin-up bar, a hand-over-hand rail, items normally in playgrounds but not sufficient for creative play. We talked to customers about what they wanted and built accordingly: suspension bridges, tunnel bridges, platforms with access points, climbing ropes, ramps, playhouses. And we combined these into activity centers,” Rick says.

Horst Henke and his siblings

A Different Kind of Salesman
While Horst was the driving force behind product sales, he approached the role of salesman differently than some. “He wasn’t in this for the money. He was really motivated by wanting to do interesting projects for kids. If something cost more than he thought it wasn’t a big deal. Nowadays, that has changed. People come right at you with what it will cost. Horst wanted to let things breathe and be creative, and then talk about cost,” Steck says.

And his sales approach wasn’t the only thing unconventional about Horst. “He was bohemian, put-together, European in his fashion sense. He had this real energy about him. I was joking about this with Rick the other day. Rick was more the serious one, the serious brother. Horst was always the fun one,” Steck says. He recalls the bonhomie of Friday meetings at Horst’s former office in Cambridge, where Horst would occasionally make a boisterous entrance and signal the end of the workday in midafternoon. “He’d come in and say, ‘Let’s stop working.’ Susan Simon, one of the main sales people at the time, would come in with a bunch of pies and cake from a fancy pastry place, wine and cake, all kinds of good things. I don’t know if that’s why Horst timed meetings for Fridays, but they were always a good time.”

In a freak accident in 1991, Horst and Rick were hit by a lumber truck, while crossing the road in the Toronto area. Horst lost consciousness and went into a coma that lasted four weeks. He went through extensive rehabilitation at Spaulding Hospital, which gave him the independence to live a relatively normal life. Although his short-term memory never came back, his lifelong love for the arts continued. He had been an avid art collector with the largest collection of Horst Janssen in North America. In 2004, at age 60, after helping set up an art exhibit for Nicholas Kilmer, Horst experienced a heart attack and passed away.

Today, though North American playground designs have drifted away from wooden structures in favor of steel beams, poured rubber surfacing, and other materials, Horst’s imprint persists in the proliferation of natural playscapes and discovery playgrounds that allow children to take risks, have fun, and test their imaginations. His memory is felt most deeply in designs that understand children as resilient, ever-curious beings hungry for adventure, just as he himself must have been on the southern shores of the Baltic Sea in the aftermath of World War II.

“Anybody can put stuff together, provide the wood material, bolt it together. It takes somebody having a sense of who is using it, how it is being used, how it is fun or challenging, to make something great. If you don’t think that way or remember what it is like to be a child, or childlike, you won’t end up with that result,” Steck says.