The fourth of five translations (by Stacey Knecht) from Made in Europe – The Cultural Icons That Unite Us tells the story of LEGO, the plastic bricks from Denmark that conquered the world, and beyond.
LEGO – Northern European Toy Design
They’re drifting somewhere through space, on their way to Jupiter: the three Lego figurines (‘minifigs’) that were launched toward Jupiter two years ago by NASA. On board the probe Juno, which should reach her destination by 2016, the Roman gods Jupiter and Juno and the Italian astronomer Galileo, are going where no toy has gone before. They are the size and shape of the lego figures we all know, but for this special occasion they’ve been made of space-grade aluminum.
These ‘figs in space’ represent our earth, but also Europe, and, more specifically, Denmark, where the plastic building blocks began their triumphal march in 1958 – with the patenting of a little brick with eight studs on top and three holes on the bottom, which turned block-building into child’s play. The lucky patentee was a former furniture factory in Billund, where wooden toys had been manufactured since 1932 under the brand name LEGO, a condensation of the Danish phrase leg godt, which literally means ‘Play well.’ After World War II, the factory owned by ex-carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen and his son Godtfred quickly switched over to plastic toys, but because the quality of the material left so much to be desired, it wasn’t until the Sixties that the lego bricks had their international breakthrough. Thanks to the use of the indestructible thermoplastic acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), but also thanks to the ingenuity of the LEGO designers.
LEGO is big in North America and the Far East, and throughout Europe, although that took somewhat longer because of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War (1948-1989). Victory began in 1969, in Germany, where the chemical company Bayer became the regular supplier of the plastic needed for the bricks. The neighboring countries quickly followed, and Great Britain seemed particularly insatiable. It was in England, in fact, only a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle, that the world’s second Legoland was built in 1996. The original is (naturally) in Billund, and is a popular place of pilgrimage for families with young children – including those from the former Eastern bloc, which ever since the Fall of the Berlin Wall has been important both as a growth market and the town where a large portion of the 36 billion new bricks are manufactured each year.
More statistics? LEGO makes over 2,200 different bricks in sixty colors; the logo, white letters ‘LEGO’ outlined in black and yellow against a red background, is one of the world’s hundred most famous. Six standard bricks with two-by-four studs can apparently be combined in 915,103,765 different ways. In 2010 the multinational made a profit of nearly half a billion euros, thanks mainly to the Russian market and the Harry Potter rage. If you were to divide all the lego bricks that have been produced since 1958 among the world’s population, each person would have 62. The LEGO design team at the main office in Billund consists of 120 people of twenty different nationalities.
And all that for a product that’s thoroughly European. With a bit of historical imagination, one might trace the stackable, mortarless bricks back to the dry stone walls that have been built for thousands of years by farmers from Ireland to Cyprus, or even to the so-called Cyclopean walls of Mycenaean and Archaic Greek civilization. One thing is certain: the inventors of lego stood on the shoulders of giants. The plastic brick had already been patented in 1939 by the Englishman Harry Page, while the first children’s building blocks were patented at the end of the 19th century in Germany.
Show me your old lego and I’ll tell you how old you are. Simple, hard-to-click bricks in red and white, stored away in a plywood box with different compartments? Born in the first half of the Nineteen-fifties. Bricks in a whole range of colors, with building elements and maybe even a lego train with engine and rails? Fifty, at least. A box full of duplo, the supersized and child-friendly version of the lego bricks? Forty-something. The proud owner of the LEGO Technic series? Raised in the Eighties. Star Wars and Indiana Jones figures, plus space and jungle accessories in plastic storage pallets for under your bed? A child of the Nineties. Everything mixed together, with the addition of Harry Potter lego, in every nook and cranny of the house? You have your own kids, under the age of twelve, who aren’t exactly the systematic type.
Before long everyone in Europe will have grown up with LEGO (which also happens to be Latin voor ‘I put together’). A little boy from Lithuania can play lego with a little girl from Spain, a Hungarian child with an Irish one – though the “Esperanto” of children’s toys is more succesful among the male segment of the population than the female. Even as an adult, you’re continually being confronted with lego. Not only because you step on it, barefoot, in your child’s bedroom, but because it’s a source of inspiration for artist and other creatives. Lego structures are featured in stop-motion productions, movies, and video clips, like Michael Gondry’s video for ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’ by the White Stripes; while lego figures are used so often in modern art that there’s even a genre named after it: ‘brick art.’ The most controversial brick artist is the Pole Zbigniew Libera, who builds concentration camp scenes with lego; the funniest is the California internet “pastor” Brendan Powell Smith, who uses lego to depict stories from the Bible. His website, The Brick Testament, now comprises nearly 4,600 photographs of more than 420 biblical stories and scenes. All the minifigs, from Abraham to Zachariah, are made of the original synthetic material. Because real lego isn’t aluminum, but European plastic.