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Thanks to sage business decisions and savvy pairings with pop-culture staples like Star Wars, Lego’s popularity has been soaring—but it’s the passionate community of adult fans who are taking the kids’ toy to astonishing new heights.

BY MELINDA MAHAFFEY ICDEN

 

As the Lego Group’s first big-budget film foray—The Lego Movie—rockets into theaters this month, it may feel like the colorful plastic brick is everywhere. And we’ll be seeing even more incarnations of the little Danish toy that could: a special Lego episode of The Simpsons this spring, an official Lego documentary, the opening of the sixth Legoland Discovery Center in the U.S., and its increasing use as the raw material of fine art, not to mention a growing buzz in the media. 

And yet, the basic Lego brick hasn’t significantly changed since it was developed 56 years ago. Sure, it comes in more colors and is sometimes accompanied by cool superhero figurines, but a brick made half a century ago still clicks perfectly with one manufactured today. 

So what’s with all the fuss? 

 

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When 33-year-old Stacy Sterling tells people she’s into Lego, they just seem confused. “People are like, ‘Oh, huh, you mean the kids’ toy?’ Some don’t get it until they see what can be done with them,” she says. The Seattle-based Nintendo employee is just one drop in an expanding ocean of adult fans of Lego, otherwise known as AFOLs, who spend untold hours and dollars building original and elaborate creations out of the toy. The Lego Group—the family-owned company that, for decades, has churned out a nearly endless supply of bricks—estimates the number of AFOLs at 250,000, most of them men in their 30s or 40s with a bent toward technology or graphic design. Teenage fans of Lego are a burgeoning group, too, bolstered in part by the rise of geek-chic. 

In the late ’90s, “two developments lured these prodigal Lego fans,” writes David Robertson in Brick by Brick, his 2013 look at the company’s blockbuster innovation strategies. “One was the launch of Lego Star Wars—which appealed to adult nostalgia for the movie classic—as well as the release of Mindstorms, a Lego robotics kit that tapped into grown-ups’ inner geek.” The more recently introduced Lego Architecture series—which immortalizes iconic buildings in plastic—consists of sets aimed at yet another segment of adults. 

Lego’s appeal for its older fans may also stem from simple childhood nostalgia, though AFOLs also point out how simple to use and largely mess-free their hobby is. When you buy a bucket of bricks, they’re ready to go, no sanding, priming or painting involved. As artistic endeavors go, it’s literally something a 5-year-old can do. 

For Mike Doyle, a fortysomething New Jersey–based graphic designer and author of the recently published art book Beautiful Lego, a family trip to Legoland California was the inspiration to pick up the playthings again. “Something clicked when I was there,” he says. “So I went back to the hotel room and searched online to see whether other people were doing anything interesting with Lego. I was really shocked to see there was a vibrant community of adults, and teens too, working in the medium. My heart started pumping.”

Today, Doyle estimates that he has some 400,000 Lego pieces carefully stored in his basement studio, where he creates large but intricate builds and is often joined by his two young sons. “You can get into a real trancelike state while building,” he says. “Time goes by, the pieces snapping together; there’s a lot of little pleasurable moments in the activity of it.” 

Chris McVeigh, a designer in Halifax, Nova Scotia, guesses he owns 100,000 pieces. Stacy Sterling figures she and her husband, Dave, have passed the 1 million mark. “Legos aren’t cheap,” says Jess Gibson, a Portland, Oregon–based filmmaker who has created “blocumentaries”—short documentaries on adult builders—since 2009. The 738-piece Lord Business’ Evil Lair, a themed set tied to The Lego Movie, goes for $70; generally speaking, a set where each piece averages out to 10 cents or less is considered a good value. “AFOLs are invested, not just timewise, but financially,” Gibson says. “And it’s a big investment, for sure, so they’re serious about it.” 

 

 

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Such adoration was probably not what Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen envisioned when he founded Lego in 1932. The company started out making household items; among its first toys was a wooden duck on wheels. The production of plastic playthings began in 1947 after the purchase of an injection-molding machine. Kristiansen’s son Godtfred then spent years experimenting with brick designs until he finally devised a sturdy locking system, patented in 1958. As the company came up with new product lines and iterations—the Lego wheel came in 1962, minifigures in 1978—their bottom line grew. But as the times changed, so did Lego’s fortunes. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the toymaker faced a series of challenges, the most vexing of which was “to catch up with a world that was rapidly leaving it behind,” writes Robertson in Brick by Brick. What it needed more than anything was to appeal to children in love with the increasingly high-tech wizardry being seen in movies and video games. In the late 1990s, the company decided to partner with Lucasfilm to produce Star Wars–themed Lego sets, and, despite internal resistance to the deal, they were a hit. First-year sales in 1999 exceeded Lego’s expectations by 500 percent, helping to jumpstart a new era. In 2012 alone, the company generated more than $4 billion in revenue. 

Paradoxically, the thing that threatened Lego’s existence in the 1990s—technological innovation—is largely responsible for the growing population of AFOLs today. 

The details may differ slightly, but most AFOLs share an origin story. They played with the bricks as children, dropped them in their teen years (what’s known as a “dark age” in AFOL lingo), and somehow stumbled upon them again as adults. Adult Lego play was a singular and, in some cases, even secretive and shameful pursuit. And then the Internet happened.

“The AFOL community has grown because of the Internet—because you don’t have to give yourself permission to like Lego anymore,” says Mariann Asanuma, a professional Lego builder who worked for four years as a master builder at Legoland California. “You realize there are thousands and thousands of people all over the country—or tens of thousands of people all over the world—who are into the same hobby.” 

As adult fans of Lego started to connect online in the late 1990s and early 2000s, wondrous things began to happen. AFOLs took the brick and made it into what they wanted and needed, pushing it far beyond the toymaker’s vision and marketing ambitions. They created online marketplaces, animated shorts, how-to guides, websites, competitions, and blogs. Multi-day conventions, organized by and for fans, are now held all over the country. “The reason the AFOL community exists at all is because of the Internet,” says college student Jordan Schwartz, a former intern at Lego’s headquarters in Denmark and author of the forthcoming The Art of LEGO Design.   

AFOLs haven’t just limited themselves to forums and fan sites. Lego, as first and foremost the producer of a kids’ toy, doesn’t manufacture realistic military gear, and the company has partnered with only a limited number of pop-culture franchises. So when adult fans want things Lego hasn’t produced—from World War II weapons to Hunger Games minifigures—they go out and make them themselves. 

But perhaps the AFOLs’ most treasured creation—surprisingly for what begins for many as an individual pursuit—is community. Andy Price, an IT professional living in Massachusetts, participates in conventions on the East Coast and belongs to two Lego user groups that meet in person once a month, in addition to using the hobby to
keep up with his brother. Stacy Sterling and Jordan Schwartz attend conventions, too, and while they enjoy the brickish aspects, what they most look forward to is meeting up with friends—builders they’ve come to know from all over the world. 

 

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Undoubtedly, the current impact Lego is having on our culture is due, in part, to the company’s strategic decisions and game-changing partnership deals, which now include collaborations with Disney and Marvel. But the true—and enduring—appeal of the brick is much more elusive than that. Why Legos? “It’s the question that gets the worst answer,” says filmmaker Jess Gibson. “Nobody can pin down what it is. Builders say it’s the color, the feel, the quantity. Legos just grow on you—in a good way.” 

Canadian designer Chris McVeigh, who wonders if his life would have taken “an entirely different direction” had he stuck with the brick through his teen years, sees Legos as something of an oasis. “As adults,” he says, “we’re often so locked into routine and so bogged down by stress that we shut the doors to play.”

While children may be the ones doing most of the playing, it’s the adult fans who are bringing the bricks to the fore, inspiring their fellow AFOLs with their magnificent builds—and, just maybe, inspiring the rest of us to take a leap and join in the building game. 

 

LEGOMANIA!

Long relegated to the playroom, Lego bricks have become a fixture in pop culture, too. A few places you’ll see them in 2014: 

The Lego Movie (February 7) From the guys behind Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, the first full-length Lego film venture has Chris Pratt and Elizabeth Banks voicing a pair of minifigures trying to save their bricky world.

Beyond the Brick (Early 2014) Lego has partnered with award-winning filmmakers Daniel Junge and Kief Davidson to produce a documentary that examines the many ways the brick has infiltrated our lives.

The Simpsons Lego Episode (Spring) In season 25, The Simpsons gang will be Lego-ized for both a TV special and an accompanying line of playthings—despite a petition from outraged fans who felt the series wasn’t child-friendly enough to merit the Lego treatment.

Lego Minifigures Online (Summer) This free, multiplayer addition to the Lego gaming scene lets fans assume the identities of nearly 100 minifigures and use their special powers to complete challenges and defeat a bunch of bad guys.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

The Lego group’s latest stats, from 2012, paint a colorful picture:

  • Set end to end, the Lego bricks sold in 2012 would encircle the globe more than 18 times.
  • 86,667 Lego bricks were produced per minute.
  • There are 86 Lego bricks per person on the planet
  • 318 million Lego tires were produced, making lego the world’s largest tire manufacturer.
  • Lego generated more than $4 billion dollars in revenue. 
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