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
Published 05/03/2014 | 02:30
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.
Like many AFOLs, Shields' chief passion is recreating real world landmarks in Lego. He has constructed a huge model of the Boyne Viaduct in Drogheda and the UK's Angel of the North.
Such projects require no little preparation – and quite an amount of agonising and heartache. "I always start with photos available on the web – thanks Google Streetview," says David Fennell, an accountant whose Lego projects include miniatures of Heuston Station, Arnotts Department Store and Jack Nealon's pub on Dublin's Capel Street.
"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.
"There is probably nothing that can't be replicated with enough Lego bricks and creativity. Some UK guys even produced a jet engine at a show last year."
Many of us have cherished childhood toys we'd give anything to still possess. Lego is different in that the blocks are essentially indestructible, which may go some way towards explaining the rise of the AFOL.
Getting into the hobby doesn't necessarily mean starting from scratch – all have to do is clamber into your attic (or your parents') and retrieve those cobwebbed buckets of bricks.
"A lot of adults still have their bricks from their childhoods," says Fennell, a 42-year-old father of two living in Naas. "There are very few products that work after 50 years. I remember an old advertising slogan that said that Lego was a 'new toy every day' and it's true. Lego bricks are the ultimate recyclable toy that rarely hits landfill.
"The focus on quality and customer service has also served the Lego group well over the years as has its support of Lego fan clubs. In more recent years the popularity of its Friends sets for girls and movie tie-ins certainly provides evidence of a greater commercial awareness of what the customer wants.
Perhaps cognisant that their others halves may be reading, the Lego fans we canvassed weren't prepared to divulge precisely how much they spend on their hobby (one UK AFOL confessed to splurging over €30,000 in a decade).
However, they will admit Lego takes up a lot of space – typically more than the average suburban home can comfortably accommodate.
"It's a big problem for nearly every fan of Lego," says Fennell, who estimates his Lego collection may surpass one million blocks. "To build models I need to access the parts quickly. So I started separating by colour. Then I decided I need to split the smaller pieces from the larger. Next were the wheels, then the windows and then the various shades of grey and brown.
"It goes on and there is always an 'unsorted' pile of bricks. The completed models are harder to store even if you've got a 'Lego room' – or 'man cave'."
Brick by brick: Lego at a glance
* 'Lego' comes from the Danish words 'Leg Godt', meaning 'play well'.
* The company was founded in 1934 by Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen. Initially a maker of wooden toys, Lego began manufacturing plastic blocks in 1949.
* In 1978 Lego started producing mini-figures, tiny yellow people with distinctive barrel shaped heads and open hands.
* Some 45.7 billion bricks were produced in 2012 – at a rate of 5.2 million every hour.
* The largest ever Lego model was a full size reproduction of a Star Wars X-Wing fighter, comprising five million bricks.
Toy Story: Kids' playthings that have lasted for eons
First produced in the early 80s by Japanese toy company Takara, the pious Autobots and dastardly Decepticons have gone on to become one of the most lucrative, and enduring, of kids' franchises. The latest Transformers movie, starring Irish actor Jack Reynor, is released later this year.
Invented in 1940 by American naval engineer Richard James, the Slinky is a compressed 'helical spring' that can appear to cold shoulder the laws of gravity as it stretches and reforms. An instant hit, James sold his first batch of 400 Slinkys in an hour. Some 300 million are estimated to have been made over70 years.
Dungeons and Dragons
Forty years old in 2014, pen and paper role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons is still hugely popular (a fifth edition will shortly be published) and has exerted a huge influence on the worlds of video games and movies. As with Lego it is arguably played as much by adults as kids (fans include actor Vin Diesel).