Five years ago, fidget toys hit the mainstream as the rapid rise of spinners fueled demand for alternate ways to keep kids — and adults — focused and engaged. While the fidget spinner fad was short-lived, the 2017 boom brought attention to other versions of hands-on sensory toys that have increased in popularity in the years since “fidget” became its own toy category.
Among the flash-in-the-pan trinkets, one hot item wasn’t necessarily new at all, but it had been evolving for decades as yet another product that became a toy by accident. Like Silly Putty and Play-Doh before it, Tangle Creations began as something completely different: In this case, art.
As a young man coming of age in the psychedelic ‘60s, Pittsburgh-born Richard X Zawitz studied Asian art and philosophy, eventually traversing Asia and developing interests in metaphysics, alchemy, and magic. Upon graduating from the University of Hawaii in 1970, he says that an energy form “crystalized” in his mind.
“That energy form was spirals, waves, curves, and circles,” Zawitz says. “I further discovered that the energy form had two universes in common. The natural world, from galaxies to quantum particles, and the human world, including art dating back to the earliest cave paintings through Van Gogh’s sunflowers and contemporary art, both contain shapes of spirals, waves, curves, and circles.”
Zawitz says that the epiphany came when he merged the two universes together to find infinity and what he dubbed the Tangle — a portmanteau of “tangent angle” — a series of 90-degree curves that can contain its energy in an elegant, infinite manner as it is twisted, turned, shaped, and sculpted.
After setting up a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts, in 1975, Zawitz created a wooden sculpture that eventually inspired a smaller version. Guests were drawn to it, and the idea struck to create a commercial version in plastic that would give people the opportunity to have a piece of customizable art to call their own.
In 1981, Zawitz headed to Hong Kong in an effort to establish manufacturing for Tangle. Later, he hit the trade show circuit with prototypes in hand to sell his creation. “Three or four gift shows after I started, the customers at my booth couldn’t stop playing with Tangle,” Zawitz recalls. “I thought I had a reposeable, kinetic sculpture, but they couldn’t keep their hands off of it.”
“Tangle is so much more sophisticated than a ‘one-trick’ fidget toy,” says The Toy Guy Chris Byrne, an industry expert. “The different configurations that players can twist it into and the various surprises that it offers make it fascinating.”
The first major retailers to embrace the potential of Tangle were high-end names, such as Bloomingdale’s and UK staples including Hamleys and Harrods. Two initial offerings — the Museum Tangle and the Original Tangle — attracted buyers with striking chrome features that emulated Zawitz’s metal sculptures.
“Tangle provides the illusion of being different and changing as it’s manipulated, which makes it fun to play with for a longer time,” Byrne says. “Depending on the size, it can engage the whole hand or just the fingers, and it’s meditative to watch it change into shapes and a size that is surprising and delightful.”
In 1983, TOMY licensed Tangle as the “Infinite Structural Puzzle” and sold it for two years in Japan.
”…AND THEY SAID IT COULDN’T HAPPEN TWICE!”
The popularity of Tangle caught the attention of a future Toy Industry Hall of Famer leading a company behind another “accidental” toy. “We did a distribution deal with Slinky through James Industries and the amazing Betty James,” Zawitz says.
In 1989, James Industries introduced the now-iconic Tangle Jr. A full-page ad in the Toy Book depicted a Slinky next to a Tangle Jr. with the headline “…And They Said It Couldn’t Happen Twice!”
When Tangle Jr. was presented to retail buyers at the famed Toy Center at 200 Fifth Avenue in New York City, Kmart ordered 500,000 pieces.
“Up until that point, everyone considered Tangle to be a gift item, but once we sold those units, Tangle was officially considered a toy,” Zawtiz says.
The deal with Kmart attracted Toys “R” Us, and other toymakers were paying attention. After the licensing deal with Slinky ended, Mattel stepped in with an offer to expand Tangle into new categories and even more retailers.
TANGLING WITH CONSTRUCTION
In 1995, Mattel developed Tangle into a construction brand called the Nickelodeon Tangle Snap & Swivel Building System. Sets including Creatures & Things, Walkers & Things, and Wigglers & Things came in box sets and plastic containers that looked similar to shampoo bottles. The promotional ramp-up in 1996 included $7 million in TV advertising and a deal with McDonald’s that put Nickelodeon Tangle Build-a-Zoids in 40 million Happy Meals. The line failed to perform at retail and was off the market in a matter of months.
NEW MILLENNIUM, NEW BUSINESS
In between licensing and distribution deals, Zawitz regrouped and took Tangle out on its own with a mission to provoke thought and promote creativity for everyone. By 2003, a chance encounter between Zawitz and a Walmart buyer led to a secured position for Tangles at the checkout lanes for three and a half years and sales of 9 million units.
“Unless someone can prove me wrong, I believe Tangle is the only toy that’s been simultaneously sold at both Walmart checkouts and the Museum of Modern Art Design Store,” Zawitz says with a laugh.
At the same time, Tangle Creations was expanding into new categories and launched a new brand: NightBall. Additionally, parents, educators, and therapists began embracing the original Tangle for its ability to help kids focus and learn, and to help adults find wellness. Tangle Therapy was launched and granted an FDA “Medical Device Establishment Registration” for use in alleviating minor stress, helping to improve muscle performance, and other uses.
Meanwhile, Tangle BrainTools supports kinesthetic learning with products featuring unique textures and colors to help kids focus. A book, Learning with Tangle BrainTools, includes a forward by Roland Rotz, Ph.D, an ADHD specialist and longtime advocate of Tangle.
In 2017, the fidget craze was in full swing and ZURU came calling. The disruptive toymaker was looking for entry into the fast-growing category and found it with Tangle Creations.
“Our licensing deal with ZURU was a great partnership and I’d like to think that we both benefited,” Zawtiz says. “ZURU recognized Tangle as the founder and originator of fidget toys. They really understood what we had.”
As part of the deal, ZURU repackaged the Original Tangle and released additional varieties in new styles, such as Classic, Crazy, Crush, Wild, and the collectible Tangle Pets.
“We worked closely with Richard on how to repurpose his original vision and create a new version of Tangle, which is set to enthrall a new generation,” said ZURU Co-CEO Nick Mowbray in a statement at the time.
The two-year deal wrapped at the end of 2019 with another explosion of interest looming just on the horizon.
TIKTOKING INTO THE FUTURE
As the world changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second fidget boom kicked off in 2020. With kids seeking outlets for peace and creativity, Tangle found yet another new audience thanks to TikTok. While Tangle Creations has an official account on the platform, it was Tangle fans who have thrust the brand into uncharted territory with videos featuring Tangle-related hashtags amounting to billions of views. There are Tangle collections and Tangle challenges, and some Learning Express stores regularly share videos to show off new shipments of Tangle products.
“Tangle Creations is a family-owned-and-operated company,” Zawitz says. “The love, care, passion, and compassion that it takes to run a business like ours with the experiences and the ups and downs that happen in our industry — you have to be caring and loving.”
As Tangle looks ahead to its next act, Zawitz hints at big plans, including an animation deal and a global Geohunt, a NightBall wearable, and, of course, more Tangle styles in new colors and textures. And that short-lived construction line that Mattel launched? It’s being primed for a Tangle reboot.
“Not one person I met back in 1981 thought that there was a chance that a plastic sculpture would succeed,” Zawitz says. “We started the fidget craze and we’re not going to stop.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!