resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog

return to index

Published in Wonderland Magazine, 2007

Lego: thinking outside of the box

You’ve maybe noticed how Second Life, the alternate online universe/RPG/social network/timewasting website, has recently enjoyed a tsunami of hyperbolic headlines. Its inhabitants eulogise this strange “metaverse” that enables them to assume new characters, make money, have sex and, with a bit of ingenuity, create buildings, landscapes, vehicles, product, artefacts and artworks. Fun it certainly can be, assuming you don't mind the atmosphere of relentlessly Californian optimism and the nagging fact that for all its wondrous claim, users remain stuck in front to a laptop.

But none of what gets conceived and built in Second Life has anything on what's currently happening back in the real world on this side of the LCD screen with a certain Danish “creative material” anyone who’s ever been preschooler will be familiar with: Lego.

Because far away from the media attention and the dotcom hype, in a certain sphere of modern life where kids who refused to grow up are endlessly recreate the joys of childhood, Lego enjoys a widespread popularity among creative, perennially inquisitive amateur adult builders  – AFOLs (or Adult Fan of Lego, as they're known) - people who really couldn’t give a fig that their neighbours may consider them just a little a bit strange.

Browsing some of the creations, reconstructions, interpretations and inventions built with the iconic Danish bricks, planks and widgets on sites like and, can be a jaw-dropping experience. Once you get past the cars, planes, trains, spaceships, rockets and robots, all the icons are there: the Eiffel Tower, a Ferrari sports car, Donald Gill’s London Underground Tube map, Philibert Le Roy’s Palace of Versailles and the Empire State Building. There is the 100,000-brick Iwo Jima flag-planting sculpture, the towering Frauenkirche in Dresden, Han Solo in icy carbonite from Return Of The Jedi and, indeed absolutely anything that has featured in an episode of Star Wars, ever.

Then there are the technically mindblowing executions, such Danielle Benedettelli Rubik’s Cube-solving machine, that exploits Lego’s potential as a scientific tool to invent things you never knew you'd enjoy, and certainly could not have predicted. There are the pop-cultural builds, such as US Lego artist Henry Lim’s recreation of the gatefold portrait of the Fab Four from Sgt Pepper, Michelle Pfeiffer in a her Batwoman catsuit, a brick-built bust of Mozart, not to mention a fully functioning harpsichord.

In true Andy Warhol consumer-good-as-modern-icon style, we have the noted “brick artist” Nathan Sawaya’s gigantic Monopoly box and a hanging mobile version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” doodle, and mosaic portraits of Hitchcock. In short, if it exists, it has or is being built in Lego by someone, somewhere. From the minute to the massive and from the simple to the supercomplex, the proliferating online community of AFOL’s prove that Legoland isn’t the only place where a better world is being built in miniature.

It's safe to say little of this could have been predicted back in 1932 when Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from Billund, Denmark, created the first wooden examples of what he called lego, from the Danish for “play well”: leg godt. Nor is it likely that he could have predicted that a toy conceived  for children would come to retain its appeal far after children had outgrown their bagatelles. It is not known how many of the 2 billion pieces of shaped acrylonitrile butadiene styrene produced by the company every year are sold to adults – currently the brand does not market directly to them – but it is among the adult who have never lost the childlike fascination with creating though play where the most extravagant builds are being produced, shared and celebrated.

As a greater cultural importance is placed on creativity, Lego, is arguably  to children what Apple is to adults – the ultimate creative brand. Conceiving, building and doing run deep in its DNA. The Danish company continually innovates by adding new lines and tie-ins to extend its range from nursery age all the way to teenage. From the simplified palette of the Duplo range suite for small hands, through Technic and the aggressive Exo Force range all the way to Mindstorms - where robots can be programmed and built on a connected PC – the brand caters for all points on the spectrum of childhood. Young fans of Star Wars, Spongebob Squarepants, Harry Potter and Thomas the Tank Engine also get to build and then probably smash up with their heroes with a range of branded collaborative offers.

It’s also safe to say that Lego features somewhere in the collective childhood experience of a significant proportion of the Western world. Which is why, when this cutely creative childhood pastimes occasionally spikes through into the popular consciousness, its appeal is magical. In Michel Gondry’s stop-frame animation video for The White Stripes “Fell In Love With”, blocky representations of Jack and Meg smash the drumkit and abuse the guitar, reminding viewers not only What a brilliant band they are, but also what wonderful silliness Lego can provide.

Similarly, in 2004 British duo The Little Artists’  - John Cake and Darren Neave -  ‘Art Craziest Nation’ installation of all the key players and works of the YBA epoch – Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jay Joplin, Gary Turk and Gilbert & George along with associated sharks, beds, private views and drinks parties - was more than just a delightful repurposing of the Lego. Reimagining them all in inch-high figurines was also a satisfying comment on somewhat self-important demimonde. For another perspective on how Lego us being exploited to interpret the zeitgeist, an avid community of animators post Lego reenactments of popular pop videos on YouTube: versions of “Thriller”, OK Go’s  “A Million Ways”, and vignettes from Grand Theft Auto and Monty Python are all up there to enjoy.

Some of the uses to which Lego has been put are more considered. In 2002 Polish artist Zbigniew Libera offered his “Lego Concentration Camp Set”, an artwork which rebuilt the Nazi gas chamber and torture suites in plastic. Whether or not Libera was belittling genocide, one could also argue he was keeping its memory alive using media appropriate to the day.

Indeed, key to Lego’s appeal beyond its nominal age range is that it literally enables outside-of-the-box thinking. While Lego can be bought, it's deeper pleasures can only be made. Most users will assemble a kit based on its instructions according to the image - of, say, a crane, robot, spaceship or castle – printed on the box. Lego’s versatility goes far beyond that (indeed, a set of eight 2x4 bricks can be composed into no fewer than 8,274,075,616,387 different  combinations). A kit’s secondary function as a blank canvas on which to paint any kind of fantasy is its real genius. It is a kind of wiki-toy – the ultimate in democratic, cheaply-available, user-generated experience that only fully becomes itself when the player’s designs are projected onto it. Similarly, creations reflect the preoccupations, skills and idiosyncrasies of their builder. As the examples above show, what can be done with Lego is limited only by the imaginative range of its user.

“The key to Lego’s appeal that it isn’t really a toy,” says Lego’s Conny Kalcher. “It's a creative material. Some people build the model on the box,  - for them it's a toy. But then they move onto building their own creations. When you get to the stage where you can express anything you want, that’s the feeling that lasts.”

And it’s also a very kind of contemporary kind of genius at a time when the delight in making, building, DIY, craft and other forms of manual creative play offer a source of pleasure that off-the-peg products and experiences cannot.

Similarly, play and creativity is becoming more recognised as key skills and equities in education and business. It's well understood that children’s cognition, imagination and creativity are improved though three-dimensional play. It's perhaps more surprising that Serious Play – a Lego boardroom initiative where bricks are used in brainstorms and play sessions over which executives can thrash out strategy, build teams and improve communication skills– is taken seriously by some very large and august corporate institutions indeed.

“Leadership teams can use the bricks to express things, solve problems or create visions,” says Conny Kalcher. “The magic of it is that it opens up ideas that the company might not have had. It's not about having the right answer, but about being creative and creating something. And,” she adds “it's great fun.”

Outside of the boardroom and amid the wider adult world, it's fair to say Lego attracts a certain type of person.

Simon Bennet, the head of the UK AFOL community the Brickish Associations says that fellow members are often drawn from the IT industry; he himself is a civil engineer. Many AFOLs are also teachers and around 10 per cent are women.

An ardent AFOL, Bennet says he experienced a “dark” age between his 15th birthday and his leaving university, after which he took to Lego building with renewed vigours and vision. “When I was a kid, I was into Lego because I could make representations of things quite quickly and easily. I though it was better than Meccano. You can break it down very easily because it clutches. Meccano, on the other hand, has screws.”

AFOLS are nothing if not devoted. Many worship at the altar of Brit builders like Guy Bagley, Jason Railton and Mark Bellis, and US “Lego Certified professionals” like Henry Lim, Eric Harschbarger and Nathan Sawaya. Bennet estimates spending around £1,500 per year on Lego, and estimates his collection of bricks to be worth £20,000. “I don't have any embarrassment whatsoever about Lego,” he says.

And quite right too, when he leads a community whose member are in the business of creating the extraordinary from the humble mundanity of the Lego kit. This may not be as easy at it seems, and it is far from child’s play.

For a start, many bricks cannot be bought in per unit, though the Danish brand does supply bulk orders for AFOLs whose visions require supplies running into the thousands of pounds. Similarly, attempting faithful recreations of real-life vehicle and buildings demands high level or mastery in the language of Lego. “Obviously, Lego only has a certain palette of bricks,” Bennet says. “If you want to do stuff to scale, it's very difficult – we develop techniques and share them.” Equally, AFOLs can content themselves with less ambitious projects – recently, in Bennet’s case, a 5ft self-supporting golf flag for his brother-in-law’s birthday.

In the limitless range of possibilities offered by lego, there a very general split between tow camps – constructivists and expressives, you could call them. While the former prefer ambitious and faithful recreations with a basis in the various disciplines of engineering (civil, aviation, nautical etc), the expressive are those whose builds aspire to something approaching the condition of art.

And if is seem rather far-fetched to suggest that plastic bricks marketed to 5-year-olds can be used to make statements on the human condition, Nathan Sawaya’s work goes at least some way towards attempting to do so.

Knows as “the Brick Artist”, Oregonian Sawaya began exploring the potential of Lego seven years ago after working in clay and candy. Since then he has shown in museums, galleries and public art displays across the states. His current “Art Of The Brick” collection includes mosaics and portrait, plus three-life size human sculptures in yellow, red and blue Lego bricks who appear to be deconstructing themselves – one examines the pile of blue bricks pouring from his shoulder, another tears open his chest, and yellow bricks cascade out. As an art material, Lego’s potential is only just being explored “It's a medium that almost everyone has played at some point,” Sawaya says.

Regardless of whether the art establishment will accept Sawaya’s works as “art”, he receives public and private commissions for across the globe on the strength of executions like these. “About seven years ago I first challenged myself to make a large scale sculpture entirely out of LEGO pieces,” he says. “When people saw it, then encouraged me to make other sculptures. I soon put them up on my website and eventually, I was getting commissions from all over the world.”

Recent success have included a permanent installation for the New Orleans Public Library celebrating the rebirth of the city after the Katrina devastation. The sculpture - a large hand with a burst of colour flowering from the palm – was inspired by children’s drawings, contained over 120,000 bricks and took over six weeks to build. Is it art? Does it really matter? It’s fun and clever, and is a glimpse of how Lego can be made to express something beyond the builder’s fascination with bridges, castles or R2D2.

Inevitably, some of the fascination with Lego is nostalgic. Yet as much of it derives from the sheer childlike delight in play, creativity and imagination, or from seeing the familiar rendered in a new and simplified way. Thus it becomes easier to see why people like Simon Bennet hold the humble brick in such high esteem. His favourite? “The simple 2 by four,” he says. “It’s the building block of life.”

© Kevin Braddock, 2007


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.