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October 20, 2013 / thatsarahdean

Icon of the month: Lego

First appeared in Third Way Magazine, April 2013.

There are 62 Lego bricks for every man, woman and child on the planet. The Lego factories produce 600 bricks per second, so even if there were an unexpected worldwide baby boom, there would still be plenty of six by twos, profile bricks and Minifigs to go round.

The u-brick-quitous (sorry) plastic blocks were developed over fifty years ago in the small town of Billund in rural Denmark, where local carpenter Ole Kirk Christensen started a toy company. He believed that as these products were for children they needed to be finished to the very highest standards. His company motto was Not even the best is good enough. His refusal to compromise on quality paid off and demand for the toys grew steadily. Christensen renamed his company Lego. The name comes from the Danish words Leg Godt, which mean play well. It was only later that someone pointed out that rather aptly Lego is also the Latin for I put together.

Lego began producing interlocking plastic building bricks in the 1950s. However the first hollow blocks were unstable. It took Christensen’s team, led by his son Gottfried over 10 years to develop a brick with a tubular interior, which grabs and interlocks with other bricks firmly (as anyone who has ever had to bite a pair of Lego bricks apart knows.). This design is still used today meaning bricks from the 1950s fit together with bricks fresh from the factory.

Lego grew in popularity initially throughout Scandinavian, into Europe and then the rest of the world. By 1968 Billund had it’s own airport paid for by Lego to enable them to ship their product around the world, whilst over 200,000 people a year were travelling to the backwater town to visit Legoland – a theme park created to cope with the crowds who wanted to visit the factory. The world was playing well with Lego.

Child development experts have described Lego as the toy of the century, lauding it for nurturing creativity, problem solving, numeracy and hand-to-eye coordination. Whilst parents love it for being value for money, suitable for both brothers and sisters, and for teaching kids to tidy up their toys – you only have step on a Lego brick in your socks once to learn this valuable lesson.

The Christensen family’s attention to detail has been both Lego’s success and it’s failing.  For a long time it was not unusual for products to be in development for over 4 years at Lego, which wasn’t cost effective in the fast paced modern toy industry, resulting in the company posting losses of over $300 million in 2003.

However like Lazarus Lego has been brought back from the dead, posting net profits in 2012 of over $950 million. The company has been resurrected by shifting production to cheaper locations in Eastern Europe and getting back to what they do best – making plastic building bricks.  Film and character tie-ins such as Harry Potter and Star Wars have increased the audience and appeal of Lego products, as has a new range targeted at girls, the much-vilified Lego Friends. This controversial range comes in pink packaging and seems to suggest that girls should only want to build cupcake bakeries and pet grooming parlours from pastel bricks.  There has been worldwide disapproval of Lego Friends and an international petition asking Lego to rethink these products.  62 bricks per person worldwide means if Lego sanctions sexism and lazy gender stereotypes, it can have a world changing impact.

Ole Christensen said he wanted Lego to allow children to explore, experience and express themselves. Lego continues to do this, but it is no longer just for children. Product designers, architects, engineers and town planners, contemporary artists and animators all use Lego as an expressive and creative medium. Lego has quite rightly been described as the clay of the modern world.

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