Rediscovering a love for LEGO

Simon Button

As he pays a visit to the birthplace of LEGO, Simon Button contemplates the meaning of our enduring love for the iconic plastic bricks

Making a pilgrimage to the Danish home of LEGO without children in tow might seem about as logical as going to Glastonbury without wellies. But after a three-day visit my opinion that I’m far from the only grown-up LEGO fan is proven to be as rock-solid as the brightly-coloured plastic bricks that form the basis of one of the world’s most iconic brands.

Despite the amusement and sometimes bemusement of family and friends, I’ve known I’m not alone in my adult love of LEGO since I reconnected with the highly-connectable building blocks a few years ago. I’m not the only 50-something kid-at-heart excitedly stocking up on construction kits and loose bricks at the company’s stores in London, New York and Paris, nor the only long-in-the-tooth fan posting brick pics on social media.

But to gleefully wander around the original Legoland in Billund, which opened in 1968, nearly three decades prior to the one in Windsor, is to feel truly vindicated. There are lots of families around but there are also plenty of big kids like me towering above the intricate “Miniland” installations, cramming onto the monorail and climbing aboard a boat to get a close-up view of the astonishingly detailed miniature Statue of Liberty.

"People really love the tangible experience"

I can’t stop smiling, but then I’ve been smiling ever since I checked into the new Castle Hotel, which has the cheeriest of staff, chirpy music piping through the corridors, painted minifigures peering at you from the bedroom walls, and buckets of bricks everywhere you look. A friend of mine sees my Facebook update and proclaims, “My daughter would combust if she saw that!”

I almost combust myself when, before I hit the theme park, I pop to the Lego House to meet Jamie Berard, the Design Lead for Architecture and Creator Expert sets—many of which I have in my flat, currently vying for shelf space with lots of Star Wars memorabilia. He brings along a new Trafalgar Square set that takes my breath away with its many intricacies. In the UK it will set you back £79.99. “But it’s a very high-quality product,” says Jamie, preaching to the converted. “We put a lot of effort into designing it and when you’re building it you’re seeing the attention to detail.”

Having relocated from Boston 13 years ago, the 43-year-old has seen a resurgence in adult buyers in recent years. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s the company started focusing more on simplifying the products—thinking people maybe wanted to play with them more than the building side of it—but in recent years there’s been an acknowledgment that people really love the tangible experience, stepping away from a digital world and making something.”

 

Billund is where the company started in 1932, when having lost most of his customers to the global economics crisis, carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen hit upon the idea of making wooden toys. He came up with the name LEGO from the Danish “leg godt,” which means “play well,” and kept the business afloat with family loans before introducing plastic toys in 1947 and interlocking bricks two years later.

The LEGO group has since proved as adaptable as its bricks, introducing construction sets before targeting the international market from the late 1950s onwards. At the end of the following decade it introduced the DUPLO range of larger bricks for younger children and in 1978 hit upon the idea of minifigures with moveable limbs (and has since produced nearly four billion of them worldwide).

"It's about having that safe space in a world of chaos"

Complex robotic Technics sets, cityscapes and movie tie-ins (introduced after a slump in profits in the 1990s) have all helped keep the company going. Still privately owned, its most recent financial report for 2018 shows an annual revenue of 36.4 billion in Danish kroner (around £4.3 billion).

 

My own history with it all started when I was kid. Loving films with a passion that eventually led me to becoming a journalist and critic, I built cinemas from the white bricks I begged my parents to buy for me, cutting out posters from the local paper and sticking them onto the facades.

Jamie tells me he never outgrew LEGO. “So I’m one of the few fans who never had these ‘dark ages’ that people talk about.” I did, though. Work and adulthood took over and I’d pretty much forgotten about it until a few years ago, when my brother told me he’d contemplated buying me a LEGO take on an art deco cinema for Christmas but balked at the £100-plus price tag.

Intrigued, I decided to treat myself and that was it: I was hooked all over again. I’ve invested in numerous build-to-instructions sets and done plenty of free-styling, fashioning more sophisticated cinemas, accessorised with diners and London Underground stations.

I show Jamie photos of a couple of my designs and he seems impressed, then he nails the appeal to adults when he says: “It’s about having that safe space where in a world of chaos you can have a fun, controlled experience where everything works out if you follow the instructions. Once you get more comfortable with that you realise, Wow, there are a lot more shapes than when I grew up and you’re being playful again, building your own creations. That’s when your house starts to get overtaken.”

I can certainly relate to that. I’ve had to demolish and store riverboats and townhouses and sweetshops to make way for all the Architecture and Star Wars sets. I’ve also discovered a nice side effect of LEGO building. As a sufferer of low-level anxiety, I find it a great way to switch off the worries and it seems I’m not the only one.

"Good quality play supports concentration and can relieve stress"

 

Self-confessed “LEGO addict” and life coach Dawn Taylor talks on her website, The Taylor Way, about coming off anxiety medication and discovering, through a chance walk-in at a LEGO store, that building a minifigure helped calm the withdrawal symptoms. She bought a couple of sets and when she found the anxiety welling up again she opened up one of the boxes, began to build and calm was restored.

“I now have a ridiculous collection and I use it almost daily with clients,” Dawn says. “It’s amazing how calming it is.”

David Whitebread, a former senior lecturer in psychology and education at Cambridge University, was part of the LEGO Learning Institute—a collection of academics who advised the company on play, learning and creativity. His work has focused on children’s psychological development and he tells me: “There is some good evidence that LEGO Therapy can enhance social skills and reduce anxiety, mostly through studies of children with autism.”

Little research, he adds, has been done on adult play but in general terms he says there is “good evidence that good quality play, which is very engaging, does support concentration and can be therapeutic in relation to stress”.

 

LEGO even has its own Serious Play range, encouraging problem-solving in businesses through group sessions where participants build 3D models as an illustration of their ideas, and last year’s crowd-funded limited edition LEGO FORMA project (where builders could customise a fish frame with different foil skins) was one of several adult-play ideas the company is road-testing.

“There’s been a lot of research on how LEGO can improve your motor skills and keep you sharp mentally,” Jamie notes, adding that he’s been inspired to meet people who only have the use of one arm so they build everything with one hand and one disabled man who could only use his mouth. “He had an assistant to put the bricks in front of him but the rest he did himself.”

My anxiety levels are at an all-time low and my spirits high during my two days in the park and my return to the LEGO house on my last day in Billund to do some more exploring. Opened a couple of years ago, it’s an interactive museum centred around an astonishing “Tree Of Creativity” formed of more than six million bricks, with rooms dedicated to different building experiences. There’s a restaurant where you don’t order with words but with colour-coded bricks and a basement-housed history of the company that shows just how far it’s come since those early wooden toys.

Happy as a LEGO-loving Larry, I head to the airport having had to upgrade my luggage allowance for all the gift shop purchases, such as a replica of the park and a hugely scaled-down model of the house. Then I spot a Billund Airport build in the airport gift shop, excitedly snap it up and board the plane thinking, I’m going to need a bigger flat


For more about LEGOLAND and the Castle Hotel, visit legoland.dk. For more about LEGO House, visit legohouse.com. British Airways flies from London to Billund daily from £35 each way

 

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