The Rubik's Cube: A Puzzling Success

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There are many reasons for the enduring popularity of the Rubik's Cube, according to its reclusive Hungarian inventor, Erno Rubik. The iconic toy is an intellectual challenge, it's accessible to people from all cultures, and it helps provide a sense of order and stability in an uncertain world. But the fundamental reason 350 million cubes have sold since 1980, Rubik says from his studio in Budapest, is its design: "People like its beauty, simplicity and form. It's really not a puzzle or a toy. It's a piece of art."

Whatever the magic, it's still working. As toy stores around the world feel the chill of recession, the Rubik's Cube is in the middle of a comeback. Global sales reached 15 million last year, up 3 million over 2007, according to Seven Towns Limited, the British firm that licenses all of Rubik's creations. When New York City toy retailer FAO Schwarz reintroduced the Cube 18 months ago it became one of the store's Top 20 selling toys within weeks; sales have stayed steady despite the economic downturn. In Britain, Cube sales are up 300% over the past two years. "People have gone back to safe brands that have been on the market for a while and that they have confidence in," says Gary Grant, chairman of Britain's Toy Retailers Association, noting that playtime staples such as Lego and Playmobil are also faring well despite the recession. (See pictures of toys.)

The Rubik's Cube certainly makes a good austerity toy: it can take years to solve and it's virtually indestructible — apart from the easily removed colored stickers. (Not that anyone ever cheated by swapping the stickers, of course.) The Cube is also benefiting from nostalgia for the 1980s, when many parents of today's kids first encountered the toy. "In the crazy times that we live in, adults are looking for those things that remind them of happier times," says David Niggli, FAO Schwarz's president and chief merchandising officer. "I've seen 40year-olds and 8-year-olds stop by and spend hours trying to figure it out."

Little wonder that YouTube has some 38,000 videos, including tutorials, that feature the puzzle, or that clubs such as the World Cube Association (WCA) have boomed lately. The WCA organizes international "speedcubing" contests — the next competition takes place in Sweden on Feb. 7. In 2003 it signed up just 89 new members; last year it added 2,200. "It's a puzzle of all times and all ages," says Ron van Bruchem, 41, the Dutch co-founder of the WCA. Says Rubik: "Not a lot of objects can generate emotions in human beings. The Cube is one of them."

On Feb. 5, Rubik's latest creation, the Rubik's 360, will debut at the Nuremberg Toy Fair, ahead of its worldwide release in August. The new puzzle is a transparent orb consisting of three spheres and six colored balls that must be maneuvered into color-coded domes. Does it stand up against the original? "If you have many children, the first one is always different because you can only have one child who is the first," Rubik says. "They have different natures and talents for you to love." In an industry looking for a boost, a little sibling rivalry will be welcome.

With reporting by Theunis Bates / London