WE all had them — Scandinavian ‘Automatic Binding Bricks’, the agony of the instep, the multi-coloured sea of warted treasure — LEGO. LEGO singular, LEGO plural. Danish LEGO (Leg godt — play well) has buttons and tubes so perfectly preserved to a 1958 patent, that 80 years later it snaps together — be it new or vintage.
I was of course, in pieces on hearing that the company was shedding some 1,400 jobs worldwide this month. Still, you don’t build and maintain one of the greatest toy companies of all time without some regular restructuring.
Endless recycling, universally compatible with itself, building up, tearing down and throwing in a clattering splash back into a crate, for generations of children of all abilities, LEGO blocks remain the legend in intelligent, systemised toys, and the most commercially successful of its type.
Founder of LEGO, carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen (1891-1958) displayed great heart when he insisted that no LEGO Group toy (est 1949) would have a war or military theme that might celebrate armed conflict.
A dogged creative, when Christiansen lost his job during the Great Depression, he started producing small timber ducks carved from off cuts from his carpentry workshop. Over the next 20 years, and despite losing the entire factory to a fire in 1942, his firm gained a foothold, determined to specialise in toys.
Christiansen threw a small fortune into a plastic injection moulding machine to perfect a version of a British ‘sensible’ four-stud block patented by child psychologist Hilary Harry Fisher Page in the late 1930s.
Dying at just 66, Ole Kirk was not to see his tweak of the little blocks and the brand it supported, explode into unparalleled fame. With its exquisite, precise engineering and manufacture in quality ABS plastic, perfect to fidget or obsess, LEGO was to have instant appeal to builders of all ages, and all cognitive and physical abilities.
LEGO was never cheap, but purists flinch at the modern and screamingly expensive kit forms, opting for self-builds and architectural challenges from technical drawings worthy of the RIAI. A fervent, multi-storey and occasionally weird subculture has stacked up over 60 years of clicks.
The Fig’ or more properly Minifig (always four brick depth’s high without head-wear), was introduced as we know it in 1978 adding greater creative drama with paralyzed characters locked onto the infant masterpiece. Rolling on the floor, eye level with an emerging city, LEGO has inspired careers in science, technology, engineering, construction trades and of course, mathematics.
TV personality James May, best known as one of the sniping three in BBC’s Top Gear, built a complete and functional house complete with LEGO slippers in 2009. Completed by an army of aching-fingered volunteers, it was a hideous eye-sore, composed of 3.3 million bricks and enraged the local planners who told him to put his things back in his toy box, and demolish it.
Stairs have been panelled beautifully in LEGO, kitchen islands veneered with it, and in a DIY coffee table set beneath glass, it’s actually beautiful in a pietra dura sort of mosaic.
Want to have a go? But a table lamp with a tall pole stem and building from the bottom with a glued on grey base, clad it in a sleeve of jagged LEGO. Instructions here: impatientlycrafty.com/2013/01/06/diy-lego-ikea-alang-lamp-hack.
LEGOLAND (nine in all) regularly stage life-size builds from pirate ships to marching bands and entire zoological gardens. In 2013, a full scale model of the X-Wing Fighter fictionalised in Star Wars, was displayed in New York.
Anoraks of the mind like to joust with the possibilities of going to the Moon, knitting it a hat and scarf and returning — all linked in the length of existing LEGO pieces.
Actually, LEGO has already been to space several times, used in 2011 on the SS Endeavour to test the effects of microgravity, and brought tenderly aboard the International Space Station by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.
Three heroic white LEGO figs, Jupiter, Juno and Galileo, will valiantly hit that eternal brick wall in gaseous and lethal radiation belts on an unmanned NASA journey to Jupiter sometime this year. Sniff. Galileo will of course, be gripping his tiny telescope to the end.
Let’s hope that LEGO can bridge (with an ascending arc of edge locks) the divide between vacuous screen bound idling, and productive imaginative play, standing firm for another 60 years.
Next Thursday, September 28, LEGO is opening the doors of the new LEGO House in Billund, Denmark. It’s a joyous temple to the tiny bricks where fans can all but swim in endless pools of the product, enjoying challenges of a 22-ton LEGO tree, a gallery, museum, a working LEGO waterfall and much more. €26.75 for adults and children over three, pre-book at legohouse.com.