Brick By Brick: The Building of Lego

Brick By Brick: The Building of Lego

The Lego Group has produced their famous bricks for decades - but what brought them to where they are today?
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Few brands have as much international recognition as Lego. Known worldwide for their iconic plastic construction brick toys, the Lego Group has endured over eighty years of producing toys and merchandise for children of all ages. As with any long-lasting company, the history and story of the creation of the toy giant is one of trial and error, ideas and tests, everything a good corporation should be doing to do to stay afloat. From making simple toys to becoming the world's top selling company and the largest producer of rubber tires worldwide (yes, that is true), Lego has found what makes the people keep coming back for more, and it all starts with one man trying to make some extra money for his shop.

Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen began the company out of his shop in 1932, as he was not making enough on just his usual wares, due to the Great Depression. He continued to make regular furniture, but also sold wooden toys under his own name. As with many cultural icons, World War II gave the economy a boost, and Christiansen was able to look into other types of toys that were previously too expensive – and upon obtaining a plastic injection machine, started making plastic cars and trucks, some of which could be taken apart and put back together, not unlike the plastic brick-and-stud toys being made by another company, Kiddicraft. Around this time, the name “Lego” was established, based on the Danish words for “play well.” Lego used the patents and plans for the Kiddicraft bricks, thus creating the first plastic Lego bricks. The company was not initially successful though, as the concept of plastic toys was still too new to most in Europe, and the items were seen as inferior to the stronger wood or even metal pre-war era playthings. They persevered, and kept producing their bricks alongside their original style toys, and little by little, the bricks became more popular.

Lego had become a major brand in Denmark and other European countries by the 1960s. In 1968, the very first Legoland theme park was opened (roughly thirteen years after Disneyland and three years before Disney World) in their home city of Billund. Upon expanding to the international market in the mid-60s, Lego's name became known to more and more people, the bricks themselves becoming a sort of celebrity in their own right. During the 1970s, sets were released worldwide, themes such as “Expert,” “Castle,” and “Town” were produced and expanded upon annually, and in 1975, the first Lego minifigures were made. These were unposable, but the same basic design was used when in 1978, the first modern type minifigs were included in the construction sets. Sets ranged from ones targeted to younger children (the now-praised Fabuland theme) to simple town/city structures that made for good imaginative play. Over the next two decades, Lego experimented with new concepts and themes, many of which exist today in some way – Castle comes back every now and again, Pirates (which were the first minifigs to use new printings and styles beyond the basic smile) appears once in a while, and the Space theme is paid tribute to in The Lego Movie with the “1980s spaceman” character, Benny.

There's only so much one can come up with, and Lego realized that in the late 1990s. The bricks were being overshadowed in the public mindset due to toylines such as Transformers during the late 1980s. With the newfound popularity of the Star Wars franchise following the 1997 Special Edition rereleases and the then-upcoming prequel trilogy, Lego and Lucasfilm made a deal for the company to make a series of sets based on the movies – officially making Star Wars the first third-party licensee of the company. This line continues to this day as one of their most successful themes, with sets featuring vehicles and locations like the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star. Two years later, Lego got involved in television and buildable action figures – but not all endeavors performed well. The Fox Kids TV show Galidor was produced as a tie-in to the line of toys, but the line proved unpopular with fans and was swiftly canceled. Meanwhile, Lego was trying their hand at complete brick built figures, leading to the Bionicle theme – a total in-house creation, with in-depth lore and story written to further develop the brand. Slowly, the company reclaimed their place in the toy box, and with popular themes such as Marvel and DC Comics, Ninjago, Creator, and Minecraft, Lego found a way to keep everybody interested without dividing the fanbase and bring in more of the modern generation of kids who might not gravitate towards the generic bricks.

After returning to the public eye during the height of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Lego continued to release sets across several new themes, all while considering ways to bring the brand into other media. Short, two-minute films were animated, mostly involving Star Wars characters. Within a few years, feature-length movies based on the Lego DC Superheroes line were released, and while not the best animated movies, they're still watchable. Most notably, after years in development, The LEGO Movie was finally released in 201x, to critical and commercial success. It is often considered one of the best children's movies in recent years, and is followed by movies such as The LEGO Batman Movie, LEGO Ninjago, and an untitled sequel to the original film. On the side of plastics, Lego keeps working on creating new products and themes, sometimes with the help of fans themselves. The Ideas theme allows for anybody to come up with an idea and if it gets enough votes, the set will be produced and sold worldwide – such as the Beatles Yellow Submarine movie set, Ghostbusters, Doctor Who, and the recent Saturn V Apollo rocket. Several brand stores have opened, almost like a snapshot into the Legoland parks.

Of course, there were times where Lego was in danger of going bankrupt. Most companies do, and as usual, Lego found a way out and back to the mass market of people worldwide. Children and adults alike can find some enjoyment out of the bricks, whether it's buying one of the expensive modular buildings or just putting random pieces together and calling it a spaceship, the toys do not have an age cap. Artists, designers, architects, students – all have used Lego has a way to express themselves and present a new idea. The simple, anybody-can-do-it system makes it stand out from other toys, where hours of instructions and batteries are needed. There are the big ticket sets like the Death Star or the Disney Castle, but there are smaller ones that kids can get without breaking the bank. Lego has made it eighty years, and at this rate, will continue to make their iconic bricks for decades to come, if not centuries.

Cover Image Credit: The Lego Group/Warner Brothers

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