How Lego Built the Coolest Company in the World

I had met a young guy—another maker—who kept building bigger and bigger robotic models, just for fun, until he was hired by various companies at the age of 24 to model factories out of Lego bricks before the companies went ahead and built them for real. And I’d bedded down in a Lego-themed hotel at Legoland in Billund, Denmark, where in the lobby there was a massive, Smaug-like Lego dragon, a Darth Vader, and Stormtroopers, and where at breakfast there was such a happy crush of rampaging runtlings, all ricocheting around with primitive Lego creations in hand, you could scarcely reach the pastry table.

Along the way, too, my son—the one who’d spent his boyhood behind that walnut door building with Legos but who was now 14 and seemingly outgrowing the toy—came with me to Billund, where the bricks were first manufactured in 1949, and for the better part of a week he forwent his increasingly exciting social life and constructed stuff out of Lego bricks again. After returning home, while sifting through some old boxes, I came upon a lost photo of my son with a Lego skyscraper he’d made when he was 9, a simple tower nearly seven feet tall, him beaming just as he had when he’d shown me a spacecraft he’d built with wings and a control room a few days earlier, in our pirate-themed room in Legoland.

The same expression, the same boy.

Perhaps it takes a place as orderly as Denmark and a rather sleepy town like Billund, in the interior of the Jutland peninsula, to have given birth to the Lego legend. You can actually hear your own thoughts here among the salmon streams and beech trees. And without much else to do, the imagination has room to take its powerful precedence too.

In the case of Ole Kirk Christiansen, master carpenter and joiner, there seems to have been a lot to think about, and imagine as well. His story’s been told before, and certainly burnished, but it bears repeating: According to company lore, having bought a modest furniture factory in 1916, Ole Kirk built a dairy and church for the town. And with wooden scraps from the factory, he began to make toys, formalizing the operation in 1934 with the name Lego, adapted from the Danish leg godt, which means play well.

Making toys was less an act of whimsy than of priority and business proposition—and his vision, it would seem, was communal from the start. With the death of his wife, Ole Kirk was left with four young sons to educate and entertain. At first the toys were simple: a painted duck with wheels, a truck. And yet his restless mind led him to a manufacturing fair in England after World War II, where he was introduced to a device known as the Windsor SH Plastic Moulding Machine. He became the first to buy and bring one back to Denmark.

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