Thursday 27 November 2014

Why we'll always love Lego

It's the toy that the grown-ups can't get enough of. Ed Power meets our greatest Lego lovers

Around the block: James Shields with his Drogheda viaduct creation. Photo: Ronan Lang
Around the block: James Shields with his Drogheda viaduct creation. Photo: Ronan Lang
David Fennell at Legoworld Copenhagen
A whole new world: David Fennell’s exhibit from LEGOworld Copenhagen includes a tram in Dublin.
David Fennell’s exhibit included Arnotts in Dublin.

Brick by brick, Lego has conquered the world. conquering the world. David Beckham and Britney spears are ardent 'blockheads' while the new Lego movie is on course to become one of the most successful animated films ever. Recently Voice UK judge will.i.am even turned up at an award ceremony wearing a Lego 'medallion'. It is possible he was making in ironic statement. More likely, he was another celeb coming out as a Lego lover.

Fuelled by a decade of surging popularity, today there are estimated to be more than 400 billion Lego bricks in circulation. You can buy coffee table books celebrating the 'art' of Lego. When the 550th episode of The Simpsons airs in May, the show will be created entirely with Lego.

The depth of our love for these cutesy plastic blocks was underscored with the recent arrival of the first official Lego movie (fans have been making their own for years).

Released in the cinematic graveyard that is February, The Lego Movie (what else were they going to call it?) has to date grossed in excess of $300m worldwide – a greater total than all of this year's Oscars Best Picture nominees combined (even more astonishing – it's actually really good).

What makes Lego's story doubly striking is the fact that, a decade ago, the company was on its knees, in danger of being feasted on by rival toy manufacturers.

Too many products coupled with declining sales had pushed it precipitously into the red. There was a very real danger this barony of bricks, founded by an impoverished Danish carpenter in 1934, might come crashing earthwards.

Instead, it has reversed its decline via canny hook-ups with Star Wars, Harry Potter and other franchises, and, at a time of economic uncertainly, posted record growth – in 2013 a 10pc spurt in revenues saw it overtake Hasbro to become the world's second largest toy company.

Behind Lego's turnabout is a new (ish) phenomenon – Adult Fan of Lego (AFOLs, as they like to be known).

These are the boffin-ish types responsible for those eye-popping Lego displays you occasionally see on television – scale reproductions of The Sistine Chapel, Battlestar Galactica, the inner linings of the Pope's nose (we may have made that last one up but an AFOL will probably get around to building it one day).

The AFOL club is far-flung, if mostly a boy-only affair. In addition to Beckham (who sent sales of the 6,000 piece Lego Taj Mahal kit rocketing when he confessed to having spent several weeks slaving over one), members include Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg, while Britney Spears is on record as saying that Lego has helped her bond with her sons. (She recently Tweeted a picture of a helicopter she had built).

"For me it was a gradual process," says proud AFOL James Shields, founder of the Irish Lego association Brick.ie. "I had reluctantly given up Lego in my teens. When Lego teamed up with Star Wars, I just had to have some of them. At first it was just one or two of the sets. After a year or two I was collecting almost all of the Lego Star Wars range.

"I was also noticing some of the other sets interested me. At some point I discovered eBay, and found I could now afford to bid on some of the beautiful old sets that were out of the range of my pocket money as a child.

"However, the pivotal point came when a science-fiction convention I was helping with wanted to put on a Lego display, and with some friends I helped to recreate the Battle of Hoth from Star Wars.

"This was when I discovered that there were other adults who enjoyed Lego as a hobby, and they even had associations. I joined the UK association known as The Brickish Association and later helped to set up Brick.ie in Ireland.

"For Heuston I had to use Google Earth to get the satellite view of the roof. I usually decide at an early stage the scale and colours to use. Not every brick is available in every colour and sometimes builders turn the bricks upside down or sideways to get special effects, for example the narrow yellow line in an otherwise grey road or a CIE logo on a train.

"As a tip, I'd begin by looking at how the windows and doors are to be done as that could decide the scale.

"Unless I need internal photos there is no need to go 'on location'. Once construction starts there is an element of uncertainty as to how long a project will take or that I'll even be able to complete it.

Irish Independent

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