When was your last close encounter with a piece of Lego? With luck, it was at Christmas, watching your grandchildren’s eyes light up as they opened their must-have Star Wars Battle of Naboo kit, rather than painfully underfoot or while clearing a blocked vacuum cleaner.
But however you’re feeling about Lego right now, there’s one thing you can’t deny: the stuff is inescapable. There are more Lego people (‘mini-figures’) in the world than there are real people. And for every one of us there exist 75 Lego pieces. Chances are that some of them once belonged to you.
That all depends, though, on your age and generation. If you can remember the Thirties, say, then the only kind of Lego toy you could possibly have owned as a child was a wooden bus, lorry, aeroplane, or pull-along animal.
Beating the Great Depression
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the year when Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter from an impoverished farming family from Billund, Denmark, first began making toys. It was the depth of the Great Depression, regular carpentry work had dried up, and Ole Kirk needed to find some other way of making ends meet. His toys were an instant success. Two years later, he named his company Lego by conflating two Danish words leg and godt – which mean ‘play well’.
One reason the company did so well was because of its capacity to adapt – and to snatch triumph from the jaws of disaster. For instance, during the Thirties yo-yo craze, Lego had manufactured vast numbers for Danish children when, suddenly, the craze died. The factory was left with a massive, unsellable yo-yo surplus. Ole, however, had the bright idea of cutting all the yo-yos in half and using them as wheels for a new toy truck design instead. It went on to become a bestseller.
Not until 1949 did Lego begin manufacturing the plastic construction bricks for which it is now so famous. If you played with such things before then, it wouldn’t have been Lego at all but the prototype pioneered by a British toymaker called Hilary Page.
A global empire
Page, a clever, thoughtful man who spent a day a week at different nurseries trying to understand child psychology is one of the unsung heroes of toy history. His Kiddicraft Company anticipated by a decade the Lego revolution. He patented his first Interlocking Building Cubes (with the distinctive studs on top and the hollows on the bottom that enable them to be stacked firmly) in 1940. But what he failed properly to appreciate was the design’s versatility and potential. So while Page soon flitted onto other, more apparently promising toy ranges (miniaturised replicas of Heinz soups, Quaker Oats, even spirits and cigarettes), it was the Danes who turned those bricks into a multimillion pound global empire. For the first five years, sales were slow but Ole Kirk was confident that quality would out in the end.
His attention to detail was extraordinary. The story goes that in the early wooden toy days, his son proudly announced that he had saved his father a considerable sum of money. Instead of painting the latest consignment with the regulation three coats of varnish, he had used only two. Far from being pleased, Ole Kirk was furious. He sent his son rushing off to the railway station to bring back the toys and do the job properly. The tale has become part of company legend. ‘Kun det bedste er godt nok’ it says on the staff T-shirts at the main Lego factory in Billund, Denmark. ‘Only the best is good enough.’ And they act as if they mean it, too. It’s a cheerful place, the Lego HQ. Hardworking, yes, but infused with a spirit of childlike wonder: as if the staff – the designers especially – can’t quite believe their luck that in adulthood they’re still involved with the very thing that gave them such pleasure as kids. This spirit extends to the executives: instead of business cards, they hand out Lego mini-figure caricatures of themselves with their details printed on them.
The Lego museum
The highlight of a visit to Billund – even more exciting than the Lego hotel with its huge Lego dragon or the Legoland theme park, or the museum – is a visit to the locked secret room that has been known to make grown men cry.
Inside this anonymous basement, stored in gun-metal grey filing cabinets, are all the toys Lego has ever made, packed in their original boxes and arranged by year. Often, the last time you’ll have seen this exact packaging was when you opened your Christmas presents all those years ago. It’s like Proust’s madeleine: suddenly it all comes flooding back with incredible intensity and for a delicious moment you’re a child once more.
Spoiled for choice
The modern generation of children simply don’t appreciate how spoiled they are for choice. Today, Lego fans have a stupendous range of products to satisfy their addiction: starting with the large Duplo bricks for when they’re toddlers; then everything from movie tie-in products (Star Wars, Toy Story etc) to themed playsets such as Atlantis or girl-friendly Belville (complete with inevitable ponies); then, as they grow more sophisticated, the fiendishly complex Technic construction kits, and the even more challenging Mindstorms (where you can build your own working robot). And if building stuff doesn’t take their fancy, there are always computer apps or online video games.
In our day it was just bricks: square and rectangular ones mainly, used for building houses. As befitted the post-war spirit of renewal, most of the early Lego sets were designed like exercises in town planning. They came either in metal canisters or cardboard boxes with a range of parts. What made Lego unique (setting it apart from rivals such as Meccano), was that though rudimentary instructions were included, the main idea was to go off-piste and come up with creations of your own devising.
This is the Lego most of us remember: jumbled-up parts from different kits that we put together whichever way took our fancy. A popular Eighties TV advert – with a Tommy Cooper soundalike doing the voiceover – captured this spirit. It showed stop-motion animation of a Lego mouse transforming into all sorts of different Lego models so as to escape being eaten by a Lego cat. In other words, if you’ve got enough bricks, you can build absolutely anything with Lego.
And you can. The places that really take this to the extreme are the Legoland theme parks, such as the original one in Billund. It includes a scale model of the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore (made of 1.5 million bricks) and a 36-foot high sculpture of Chief Sitting Bull made of 1.75 million bricks, which took two years to build. Last year, Lego fans spent two months constructing a 38-foot high Christmas tree out of 600,000 bricks at St Pancras station in London, while others staged tableaux using Lego mini-figures to re-enact some of the year’s key events, from the Libyan civil war to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s ‘first kiss’ on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
A family friend
Perhaps the main reason Lego attracts such loyalty is that, despite being a global corporation – with revenues in 2010 of £1.8 billion, profits of £563 million and an incredible 5.9% share of the entire toy market – it still feels less like a ruthlessly commercial brand and more like an old family friend.
Lego takes great care to nurture this cosy image. Though its first patented design, ironically enough, was a toy gun, it has generally pursued an anti-violence policy. For years (until the pirate series of the late Eighties) its mini-figures weren’t allowed to carry weapons. When a product tie-in with Star Wars was first mooted, there was strong resistance from traditionalists who objected to the word ‘wars’.
Star Wars figures
They were overruled and its Star Wars kits – together with the Harry Potter ones – are its biggest sellers. But not even these were enough to stave off near-disaster in 2003 when sales fell by 29%, Lego posted losses of £217 million, and the firm faced bankruptcy.
It was rescued by the arrival of its far-sighted, gently spoken CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp who realised that Lego needed to go back to basics. He sold off all the parts of the business that weren’t integral to the core product (properties, theme parks, video game development), and reduced the number of Lego components from 7,000 to 3,000. At the same time he devised three key principles – what he called Moments of Truth – that Lego products should follow.
- When it’s advertised does it make a child say: ‘I want this!’?
- Once he opens the box, does it make him go: ‘I want more of this’?
- One month later, does he come back to the toy and still play with it? Or does he put it on the shelf and forget about it?
Maybe things haven’t changed so much after all.
A Lego timeline.
1932 Master carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen started making wooden toys
1955 Lego’s ‘System of Play’ is introduced (also known as ‘Play and learn’), emphasising the importance of children learning through play
1958 The Lego brick is given a new patented coupling system – thus ensuring that your models don’t fall apart. Lego bricks stick together!
1962 Lego introduces the wheel and even experiments with electric motors
1968 Legoland Park opens in Billund
1974 The Lego figure is born – role play and characters become an integral part of the whole experience of playing with Lego
1984 Lego collaborates with the Media Lab at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on programmable bricks…
1986 … the result is Lego Technic Computer Control – the forerunner of Lego robots
1989 Seymour Papert from MIT becomes Lego Professor
1993 A deal between Lego and Kabooki A/S – Lego Kids’ Wear goes on sale
1995 Lego Primo launched for those aged under two
1996 Legoland Park opens in the UK, in Windsor
1998 Lego Group wins right to make Star Wars products
1999 Legoland Park opens in the US and Lego is voted ‘Toy of the Century’
2001 The ‘Bionicle’ arrives: combining real toys with online games
2005 The Legoland Parks are sold and Lego refocuses on its core business
2009 Lego board games launched – for all the family to play together
2010 The Lego Universe game goes online. It means players can have fun playing with virtual bricks – while also playing with real, physical bricks at home
2012 Look out for some controversy with a new pastel range, Lego Friends, designed to appeal to girls and including mini dolls and a beauty salon. ‘What am I supposed to do? Take back the Lego I’ve bought in case it’s not girly or pink enough?’ said one outraged mother.
Playing with numbers
- If you laid all the Lego bricks sold in 2010 end-to-end, they would reach more than 12 times round the world
- Approximately 560 Billion Lego pieces have been manufactured since 1949
- On average there are 75 Lego pieces for every person on Earth
- More than 400 million members have joined the Lego Club
- Lego produces more than 381 million tyres every year, making it one of the World’s largest tyre manufacturers
- More than 36 billion Lego pieces were made in 2010
- 7 Lego sets are sold every second
- Six eight-stud Lego bricks can be combined in 915 million different ways