As you already know if you’ve been following me over at Novel Ninja, I like Lego. I really like Lego. Lego is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, right up there with the wheel, written language, agriculture, and pizza. Lego has extraordinarily simple rules and yet functionally infinite combinations, capable of being learned in moments and yet they take a lifetime to master; a finite art form able to encompass the length and breadth of the human imagination itself.
“Wait . . . art form?” you might ask. “We’re talking about kid’s stuff, right? You know, the little plastic blocks found in the toy aisle and all over the floor where I walk with my bare feet in the middle of the night?”
Yep! Same thing. Sure, it’s a kid’s toy. It’s also an art medium. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at this:
Yes, that’s Smaug. Yes, that’s made out of Lego.
Need more? Well, how about the Vatican?
In case you haven’t seen this one flying around the Internet, this was designed and built by a Catholic priest. There’s a great article on it here. I met Fr. Simon myself at BrickFair this year. What’s BrickFair? I’ll get to that.
The point is, Lego isn’t just for kids. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s for kids of all ages.
My Big Fat Lego Life
I don’t remember when I first started playing with Lego. I do know that it didn’t start as much. When I was 5, my older brother — having just turned 13 and now burdened with the looming responsibilities of adulthood, or something — had been informed by our father that he had to get rid of all his Lego. Aside from a few scattered bricks that missed the purge, my collection was entirely built up on my own. It started out as a few sets as Christmas and birthday gifts, or bought with carefully-saved allowance money. That increased down the road, and now the vast majority of it has been gained as an adult.
Much like with Harry Potter or comic books, there’s a perception that Lego is for kids. It’s a very reasonable perception: namely, it’s marketed to those same kids. And, of course, the perception of being juvenile is hard to take as a teen, which leads into changing and then keeping certain habits as an adult. When I was in seventh grade and starting life at a new school, I was mocked and ridiculed for liking Lego. My response was to flush with embarrassment and never mention it again.
But unlike my peers, I never stopped playing. And — no joke — thank God for that. Despite a lot of pressure from both inside and outside my home, I never gave up my bricks and never stopped building (well, aside from college, when it was a little hard to build in my dorm room). If I didn’t have my bricks, I don’t know what I’d be now.
The Benefits of the Brick
That’s not an exaggeration. Lego is an art form, and like many arts it can be used for therapy. I’ve talked before about dealing with depression; this is one of the ways I cope. I have control over my surroundings, and I can create. I can build something that never existed before, or follow in someone else’s footsteps and see what they did right and what I might do better.
That’s why art therapy works, and especially for people with depression, anxiety, or autism/Aspergers. Those three conditions (I have the first and the third) enhance the fear of failure to crippling levels. Lego art therapy is even better than painting and drawing and ceramics, though, because if you make a mistake, nothing is ruined in the attempt. You can take it apart and try again. Your failure isn’t staring you in the face, or exposed to the eyes of other people.
Recently, a young man with strong Aspergers sought me out for advice at a Lego convention, as he’d heard I have the same condition. He wanted to know how I could stand to be around so many good artists and not feel angry that they were better than me. I replied by paraphrasing something Chesterton once said. “It is only we who build badly that love the brick itself.” I explained to him that if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing regardless of whether you’re the best at it. And, in doing so, you become better.
Lego doesn’t just help with mental issues and encourage creativity, though; it also helps with physical coordination. Due to my arthritis and fibromyalgia, I have to build very slowly (at least, compared to many others I know), but it also keeps my fingers limber and prevents repetitive stress from things like typing on a keyboard all day. That also extends to full-on physical therapy; I’ve personally seen both private practices and the United States military use Lego to help patients recover full range of motion after injury. In fact, if you happen to pass through the Water Reed National Military Medical Center anytime soon, you could go by a display cabinet in the waiting area at Physical Medicine and see Lego sets assembled by recovering soldiers.
The design of the humble Lego brick has been around for a while — in fact, if it were human, it would be nearly retirement age — but the origins of Lego go back quite a long time. Depending on how you count it, it would be 1949, 1934, 1932, 1916, or 1895.
In 1895, a carpentry shop was founded in Billund, Denmark. This would be unremarkable for this story, except that just over twenty years later, in 1916, it was purchased by Ole Kirk Christiansen. Despite a fire that gutted the shop in 1924, the business continued to grow until the Great Depression, when scarcity made Christiansen try to use every scrap of wood for something rather than just discard the leavings of his larger products. This, in turn, led to him creating toys and scale models of the furniture he created as part of his normal business.
The first toy he made was in 1932, a simple wooden wheeled duck for his sons to play with. Soon, more ducks were being carved for other children, as well as trucks, trains, wagons, and so on. In 1934, Chrstiansen gave his business a new name: “LEGO,” coined from the Danish words leg godt, or “play well.” Often, much is made of how “lego” is (bad) Latin for “I put together,” but this was more than two full decades before The Lego Group began working with plastics, much less plastic construction bricks.
World War II increased the scarcity problem, but the aftermath brought along new innovations to overcome such issues. One of those matters to this story: by 1947, plastic injection machines were affordable enough for The Lego Group to purchase one. You might think that this led directly to the Lego we know today, but no; we still have a way to go.
The first company to make plastic construction bricks was actually not Lego, but the British toy manufacturer Kiddicraft. I’m a huge Lego fanboy, and so it was a surprise to me to find out that the original brick design actually belonged to someone else. The Lego Group successfully registered an innovation on the design later, but the studded construction design was not invented by anyone in the Christiansen family or their employ. In fact, they didn’t even acquire the rights to the Kiddicraft design until 1981.
Lego created two innovations over the Kiddicraft design, both of which rolled out in 1950. Yes, that’s right. We’re finally up to 1958, the time when Lego as we know it arrived on store shelves.
The first innovation was in the design. Notice that the Kiddicraft bricks are hollow? They gripped other bricks about as well as Lincoln Logs. Lego improved the grip (the “clutch power” as they like to call it) by adding the familiar interior tube system. Now the bricks could stick even when you turned them upside-down.
The second change was mostly a matter of marketing. Ole Kirk’s son Godtfred created the first “town plan,” a precursor to modern instruction-based kits, as a way to encourage children to make houses and other buildings along a stylized municipal layout. (If you click on the link, it shows a young Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Ole Kirk Christiansen’s grandson, on the cover of that product. Fifty years later, Kjeld Kirk appeared on a special anniversary set in 2008.)
And that’s the origin of Lego. Oh, there’s plenty more history where that comes from — from the mundane like the switch to ABS plastic, to the grand changes like the first Legoland or the growth of Lego themes, to the numerous legal battles Lego has fought, to the near collapse of the company fifteen years ago — but I don’t have the space to tell those stories here. Maybe in another blog post down the line. Trust me, I can probably see my way to talking about Lego in the future.
I Didn’t Choose the AFOL Life . . .
There’s a near-official term for enthusiasts such as myself. Rather like most of the jargon we use, it sounds odd to outsiders. The term is “AFOL,” or “Adult Fan of LEGO.” I don’t use it much myself, because in practice it refers to true enthusiasts rather than non-building fans (of which I know many). I usually prefer the term brick artist, but perhaps that sounds pretentious.
Or perhaps not, when you consider what kind of art comes out of this community.
There are hundreds of RLUGs (Recognized Lego Users Groups, official clubs recognized by Lego) across the world, encompassing thousands upon thousands of adult enthusiasts. You can see a map of these clubs here, across five continents. That’s just a small fraction of the amount of the world population that’s involved with Lego in one way or another. The Lego Group is, as of 2014, the biggest toy company out there, finally surpassing even Mattel; and yet, while it might not qualify for the traditional “mom and pop business” moniker, it’s still a privately-held business run by Ole Kirk’s family and their friends. The communities of Lego builders share that same family feeling; I’m still surprised by that, even five years into my involvement with a LUG.
I’m a member of WAMALUG, the Washington Metropolitan Area Lego Users Group. Together with WAMALTC (Lego Train Club, for those who have a train obsession . . . which is basically every kid at some point), we’re the go-to group of artists and enthusiasts in the greater DC area. We’re one of the more active groups, and we get a lot of requests to display at stores, museums, and charity events. In fact, two or three times a year, we display at the National Air and Space Museum, either downtown on the Mall or out at the Udvar-Hazy annex. (During my first time displaying at the annex, we were literally displaying under the real-life space shuttle Enterprise. Tell me that’s not awesome.) We’ve even been known to appear on TV.
The DC area is also the birthplace of BrickFair, the largest Lego convention in the country. (Don’t believe those people from Brickworld in Chicago, they’re lying liars! *cough* Okay, there’s a friendly rivalry . . .) On the first weekend of August, tens of thousands of people come through the doors of the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, VA (as seen in several of the pictures in this post) to see what we have to display this year. For the last two years, and again next year, I’ve been the Castle Theme Leader, putting that expensive history degree to good use.
BrickFair has expanded to a four-location franchise (the others being Alabama, New England, and New Jersey), so if you live on the East Coast you should take a look. And if you live farther away . . . well, we’ve literally had people fly in from Australia to display at the Virginia show, so don’t let distance stop you! (But odds are there’s another convention closer to home, so poke around the Internet and see.)
The Best Piece
Lego is a pretty big part of my life, even though I still feel like a newbie next to some of my fellow artists and AFOLs in WAMALUG and the larger Lego communities online. It’s fun, relaxing, therapeutic, and fun. Did I mention fun?
But the best part isn’t showing off to other enthusiasts (which is fun), or introducing something that gets copied by other builders like a viral cat video (which I’ve done). No, there’s another reason why I like getting up for public shows when I can, and why I’m always disappointed to pack up at the end.
One day at the Air and Space Museum when I’d gotten two hours of sleep from building and yet seemed more alert than everyone else, another WAMALUG member asked why I had so much energy. She was used to me being a bit lethargic, slowly moving through the world in my wheelchair; she’d seen me when I arrived, bleary-eyed and yawning. “We’re all getting tired, and you seem to be getting more active as the day goes on!” she said.
“Because of the kids,” I told her. “This is why I do this.”
There’s one thing always guaranteed to be better than recognition by a peer, and that’s knowing you inspired someone. I like building because it’s fun; but I look forward to displaying for the public. The thing that motivates me is the look on a young builder’s face as they go from “That’s amazing!” to “Wait, I could build that too!”
That is why I like displaying to the public. And that is why Lego is awesome.