How Lego Built the Coolest Company in the World

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LANDON NORDEMAN

Lego clearly isn’t an oblivious collective of elves making a magic toy. “This is our heart and soul,” said Roar Rude Trangbæk, Lego press officer, while giving me a tour of the factory, a fully modern, automated, fifteen-acre warehouse replete with 750 of the latest versions of that old Windsor SH Plastic Moulding Machine. Working off computers, the machines purred in a low hum, fed by pipes teeming with ABS pellets. When heated and liquefied, the material fills a mold, cools to its particular shape, and then is ejected in that jangle of color, cheap jewels filling bins until they’re swept away by robots, destined for whatever particular set will excite its clamoring fans or offer complete satiation on Christmas morning. But even in its unceasing production, the Lego brick is animated by ten tenets, first codified by Godtfred in 1963. It seems a lot to put on a piece of plastic, but in boiled-down corporate bites these are:

1. Unlimited play potential

2. For girls and for boys

3. Fun for every age

4. Year-round play

5. Healthy, quiet play

6. Long hours of play

7. Development, imagination, creativity

8. The more Lego, the greater the value

9. Extra sets available

10. Quality in every detail

In the conversations that ensued at world headquarters, I noticed some recurring themes: Most employees claimed an early love for playing with Lego bricks (that they, too, were the boy or girl behind the walnut door); evoked their bosses, the Kristiansen family, with glowing, if slightly cultish, praise; emphasized the low-key, inclusive company philosophy that continues to highlight the educational rewards of playing with Lego bricks; and spoke to the need for corporate secrecy regarding future plans and ongoing research (“We don’t necessarily feel we’re competing with other toys or games,” said one employee, but he clamped shut when asked with whom or what Lego was competing, then); and ended each conversation somewhere between the twenty-third and thirtieth minute with a somewhat brusque insistence on how busy they were. At a company in forward motion, and with pressure to produce during the relatively sane number of hours in the Danish workday, there seemed little time for floaty reflection or declarative me-statements here. The folks at world headquarters are happy to leave that up to others. Meanwhile everything’s on an egg timer, and you can almost hear the sucking sound of an incredibly lucrative enterprise needing their attention to maximize profit. If there was a disappointment, at least for me, it was that, except for the designers, none of the adults here seem to have any real time to play.

AFTERWARD, SEVERAL LEGO EMPLOYEES ASKED ME IF I’D CRIED ON MY VISIT THERE

At one point, back at the Idea House, I was led into what the Lego people call the Archive, but it might best pass as the Stacks of Past Memory. These are huge, hand-cranked bookshelves, more or less divvied up by decade, containing almost every Lego set ever made. It’s an astonishing thing, really, and some of the most obscure kits were bought on eBay. Found down here are the first Lego Mursten (or Building Bricks), and the Big Town set from 1961, and the automated Lego train and Lego Space from the 1970s. The stacks from the eighties and nineties bring an assortment of Duplo products (the bigger Lego brick) and Lego Mindstorms, while the 2000s lean more heavily on the action figures and movie tie-ins, from the Vikings sets to the Harry Potter set scenes. And let there be no doubt, somewhere in this plastic cornucopia is the game or set that once belonged to you too.

It’s said that people get lost in the Archive for hours. In fact, afterward, several Lego employees asked me if I’d cried on my visit there. (I hadn’t, but when my son came upon the Millennium Falcon in the 2000s stack, the first big Lego kit he ever completed on his own, he gave a little yelp of joy.) They asked because either they themselves had—or they’d heard the many poignant stories of others who, when confronted with the Lego set of their youth, had had a sort of Wild Strawberries moment, powerfully recollecting the hours spent lost in the pure pleasure of this particular kit or remembering the person by whose hand they’d been given the gift … and then they’d found themselves absolutely overcome by this wave of strange joy/sadness, or grief/elation, or whatever it was that only a simple, infinite plastic brick could mysteriously evoke in a person reaching backwards in time for something there/not there, namely his childhood.

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LANDON NORDEMAN

A few weeks later, back on this side of the ocean, I took a New England road trip. At each stop—at MIT’s Media Lab to meet with renowned educator Mitchel Resnick, at the bustling Lego Model Shop in Enfield, Connecticut, and in New York City, hive of Lego makers—I was met with a blast of effusion. Though I was talking to grownups, it felt over and over again as if I were entering through the door of some geeked-out kid’s room, one towering with Lego inventions and scattered bricks everywhere and the breathless monomania of perpetual youth. There was something in the primitivism of it all, the clicking bricks and blocky figures, the sophistication and simplicity, the splendor and rusticity that links the present and the past, that created some deeper disturbance of comfort.

Situated near the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT’s Media Lab is a glass-and-metal building where Resnick, perched on the fourth floor, resides in a world of inquiry meant to lead today’s kids to new, sticky learning experiences. Among other things, he and his team have developed a computer program called Scratch, which enables children to make their own video games, animation, and interactive art. “We’re always about kids creating, building, designing, and inventing,” Resnick said. Dating back to 1985—when Lego first struck up a partnership with MIT—the Media Lab has made the Lego brick one of its primary focuses. In fact it was Resnick and his research group who came up with the idea of the programmable brick, which contained an embedded computer capable of controlling a Lego model. They created bricks with chips. The result of their work, in turn, led to the first iteration of the Lego Mindstorms line.

“WHAT I THINK IS SPECIAL ABOUT LEGO IS THIS IDEA OF STRUCTURE PLUS FREEDOM.”

(The agreement between the corporation and the university appears clear-cut: Lego donates an unspecified amount of money each year—beyond the $5 million it earmarked in 1999 for Resnick’s connected Lego Learning Lab—while having access to the research that comes as a result of its investment. That is, beyond Lego’s donation, MIT doesn’t benefit from any applications it develops for, or with, Lego bricks, though Lego supports the lab’s research into, among other things, smart materials, embedded computing, and attempts to understand how and what children learn through play and develop new ways to make their playtime more expansive. The company also provided seed money for the Playful Invention Company, founded by Resnick’s colleagues, in order to test more ideas in the marketplace.)

As part of the partnership, Resnick finds himself in Billund four or five times a year—and guides his own research by the Lego mantra of “Joy of building. Pride of creation.” “What I think is special about Lego,” he said, “is this idea of structure plus freedom. You can have fun with modeling clay, but Lego provides structure. The material itself—a 2×4 brick—is freedom and structure. It’s not absolute freedom: Here are the bricks, build anything. And it’s not: Here are the instructions, you can only build to the specifications. That’s not great either. We want kids to imagine new worlds but have some structure in order to build them.”

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LANDON NORDEMAN

Resnick continued, “One of the things I like about The Lego Movie is the core message: Don’t just follow the instructions. Be creative. The best learning experiences will come when the kids are the designers, when kids aren’t just watching and listening but creating. Of course we always learn from watching too. If a movie is inspiring kids to become builders, creators, designers, I think there’s a great role for it. One thing I worry about with new technology—computers and gaming—is that people talk about interactivity, but if interactivity is just moving a joystick and pushing buttons to control a character on the screen, that’s not joy of building or pride of creation.”

If we are headed toward a future in which increasingly complex digital–physical integration will become the norm in play, Lego officials seem unfazed. “The way we look at it is simple,” said Lego spokesman Michael McNally, picking up two bricks and sticking them together: “This is the same as this.” He pretended to swipe his finger over a glass screen. “The user is still a kid and a creator. We have a more profound understanding of the digital than we did ten years ago. Instead of panicking that the tactile toy will never survive, we realize that kids want the tactile and digital to work together. It’s not discrete, it’s complementary.”

Nowhere is this symbiosis of digital and tactile clearer than when one scrapes the maker subculture that barnacles the hull of the Lego enterprise. In some ways it’s the most exaggerated actualization of Resnick’s clarion call for active players—and refutes the notion that Lego bricks lose their primacy when kids develop typical teenage interests, or that there’s some predictable demographic for enthusiasts. If anything, Lego makers are fully grown adults, and the culture thrives both inside the company and out, at conventions and online fan sites and in places like the Lego Group’s U.S. headquarters in Enfield, where up to two dozen model builders work to fill company requests from around the world. Among the deadlines of the moment when I visited in the fall was a massive Lego model of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., that will be more than twenty-five feet long and will be displayed as part of the traveling Lego Americana Roadshow, which will also include a sixteen-foot Washington Monument and a sprawling White House with both East and West wings. The master builders, as they’re called, are of a kind: happy to bounce between working at the computer, where they design and “concept,” and building with the bricks themselves. And way more than happy to dedicate several months of their time perfecting, say, a life-size Buzz Lightyear or rakish Jack Sparrow.

“WE REALIZE THAT KIDS WANT THE TACTILE AND DIGITAL TO WORK TOGETHER.”

“I get to be a rock star without the hassle of people knowing who I am,” said Pete Donner, the design manager here, with a playful smile. His computer screen showed a koala bear that will attach to a thirty-foot Lego Christmas tree to be sent to Australia as part of a holiday show, then in what Donner called “low poly phase.” He began his Lego life being into “giant gorillas, dinosaurs, and all that sci-fi stuff like robots and spaceships.” Seventeen years ago, in 1997, he heard they needed extra hands at the workshop. At that time everything was analog. “People would grab a bunch of bricks and just start building,” he said. By 2001, however, the switch to digital brought the use of 2D and 3D images to help the modelers. “It suddenly became more like sculpting with clay,” said Donner. After eleven years of building, he was elevated to designer as well, a job he claims to be the best in the world, something you hear often among those who make their living working among Lego bricks.

“I go to Disneyland and see people—parents and kids—who are really excited about what we’ve built,” he said. “And I get to spend my life chasing the creative urge. I used to go out on the road a lot, and, inevitably, a kid would come up to me at this or that show with the same ten bricks that sit in front of me every day, and I’d be like, ‘How did you know those could go like that?’ ”

The infinite again. (Or at least the multimillionite, as it’s been calculated that there are more than 900 million possible combinations for six eight-stud bricks.) “I marvel every day at how much can be done with something relatively simple,” Donner said. “But you also have thousands of elements that all work together. It has transcended being a toy into something else, which is anything you want it to be.”

And this is exactly what lies at the heart of what Sean Kenney—he of yellow rubber ducky—said is the maker’s drive “to create something that’s never been created before, just because it’s a cool thing to make.” Forget the cost of the sets or the corporate billions made, all the numbers and studies and thinking on it, all the people at headquarters working the spreadsheets and future plans and origin stories. This is what it always boils down to: mind, fingers, bricks. A lightning storm in the left lobe. A compulsion to build and express.

In the end it’s the bricks that speak.

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Sean Kenny

LANDON NORDEMAN

Kenney remembers a time when he was 20, when his mother was cleaning out his childhood bedroom. He took all of his Lego bricks back to college, and in his dorm room, with two other roommates, began building an elaborate city, mostly like the one across the river: New York. “They made fun of me for about two days,” he said. He started giving himself all sorts of rules. A building couldn’t be wider than it was tall, for instance. “Then when I’d return from class, I’d see they’d been playing too. There were alien invasions. Or I’d find the heads of all the minifigures in a pile, and just crack up.”

Kenney’s obsession carried through, even when he was working a six-figure office job. “I gave myself a $200-a-month budget to spend on Legos. I made a deal with myself that I’d spend it all or lose it. If I had $30 at the end of the month, I’d just buy a bunch of doors and windows and see what I could do with them.” What he found was that there was a not-so-underground community of others exactly like him, posting their creations to the Internet, people who blew him away. One guy named Mike Doyle was building a mystical world called Odan, with a master plan calling for 200,000 Lego pieces. In order to fund part of it, he raised almost $10,000 on Kickstarter. “He’s created some unbelievably beautiful things you’ve never seen before,” Kenney said. “It’s inspiring. Some of them are like oil paintings.” That, he said, is a large part of the maker movement, throwing stuff out there in hopes of moving people somehow “with the purity of interlocking bricks.”

And when you delve a little, all kinds of people, it seems, are on their own interesting Lego trip. The White Stripes have a music video for “Fell in Love With a Girl,” all in Lego stop-motion animation, while one of The Guardian website’s most popular sections is called “Brick-by-brick,” in which sports highlights, mostly soccer related, are re-created by stop-action Lego figures. Another maker, David Pagano, has created his own acclaimed animated franchise of “brickfilms,” called Little Guys!, while Brendan Powell Smith has authored a book called Assassination! with the subtitle The Brick Chronicle of Attempts on the Lives of Twelve U.S. Presidents. (Its high/low point is a scene-by-scene re-creation of the Kennedy assassination, ending with Lego Kennedy grasping for a red blotch at his neck while Lego Jackie clambers to help.) On YouTube there are Lego reimaginings of everything from World War II battles (one D-Day video has over 10 million views) to cool skateboard crashes (nearly 5 million views).

“I GET TO BE A ROCK STAR WITHOUT THE HASSLE OF PEOPLE KNOWING WHO I AM.”

So why does Lego, the name and the brick itself, lurk in the imagination, and in our lives, long after toys like the Yo-Yo Ball and Micro Machines Zbots have faded? And in an age of Xbox and PS4, in the Time of Our Digital Panoply, why are those simple bricks more popular now than ever before, racking up more than $1 billion in profits for the Lego Group in 2013?

I wonder too: Does the answer partly lie in the work of a German artist named Jan Vormann, whom one can find online, roaming the world, spackling holes in crumbling city walls with rainbow Lego-brick constructions? Is that the reason that Legos resonate for us—because we need rainbow patching too? Is it that life isn’t this precise Pixar rendition, but blocky and striving and shape-shifting, and in the simplicity of the Lego brick we find a certain physical, intellectual, and spiritual release?

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Sean Kenny

LANDON NORDEMAN

Kenney, for his part, seems to believe there is something cosmic at work. “For some of us, it’s hard to imagine anything but this,” he says. He holds up two Lego bricks in yellow and blue. “These are puzzle pieces, and this is how everything connects. It’s like this little atomic block of the universe. Sometimes I think, what if I couldn’t do this anymore? What if Lego has a CEO years from now who says we have to stop, who says we’re infringing on the company’s copyright? I don’t know what I’d do. This has been my whole life. Would I go back and make toys? Or real houses? I don’t know.” Kenney grows pensive, glances at the floor-to-ceiling shelves containing his world, thousands of Lego bricks, some from his own childhood.

“I love slogging through all the creative problems,” he says, lighting up again. “We were doing a hummingbird recently, and we were, like, three weeks behind, and I was up on a ladder building, in the thick of it again, something was squirking out here, and over here we had to lift and support and shim things.

“It seems weird to say, but I was in heaven.”

So, where is he?

Right here, it turns out, behind the walnut door again, where he’s always been. The time is right now, today, and my son just turned 15. Fifteen! He will soon have his driver’s permit. He’s interested in many things besides Lego. And yet here he is, making a Lego forest, enacting a chase scene. When I knock, he allows me in. He’s happy to share what he’s made, tolerates me fiddling with a few bricks as he adds to the forest. Besides the mechanical exercise of attaching brick to brick (“the interlocking principle,” as Lego has it) and the unknowingness of what will happen (the thrill of discovery and invention), something else comes out of this exercise and these seemingly fugitive hours on a Saturday afternoon: I’m moved by memory and engagement into a timeless space, a place where thousands, nay, millions of other ghostly Lego-brick players already play, and where that sort of invisible interconnectedness lends its own meaning to the lopsided pterodactyl spaceship I make, the one that evokes laughter from my son and takes its place in the same world with his forest and Lego Mark Twain, with big Lego rubber ducky and Darth Vader.

But for the moment it’s pretty simple. We’re just playing. And the thing is this: We have no idea what might happen next. We’re building a secret that we ourselves don’t know yet. There are bricks in our hands, a universe. We keep building it into being.

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