Legomania: Building an Empire

How did little plastic bricks conquer the world’s imagination? Josh Sens reflects on the love of Legos.

A woman builds Lego models of San Francisco, image

A Legoland model builder towers over San Francisco in Miniland.

Fittingly, the story has the makings of a children’s fable. The year is 1949. The setting is a workshop in Billund, Denmark, where a kindly toy maker named Ole Kirk Kristiansen coaxes to life his vision for a new product.

Like the best ideas, his is beautifully simple: a collection of small, interlocking blocks that snap together snugly but not so tightly that they can’t be pulled apart. They’re called Automatic Binding Bricks, but soon that label changes to Lego bricks, since the name of Kristiansen’s business is the Lego Group, derived from a Danish phrase that means “play well.”

Little does Kristiansen—or anyone else—realize how many people will take those words to heart.

Today, Lego is one of the fastest-growing toy brands on the planet, with a following that transcends age and international borders. “The only limit is your imagination,” says Lindsay Burroughs, a project developer on the Pirate Reef attraction at Legoland in Carlsbad, Calif., which took three years to construct and incorporates 223,000 bricks. “I feel like if I can imagine it, there’s a good chance I can make it out of Legos.”

How obsessively does the world love Legos? One measure of its fondness is the boom in Legoland theme parks, which now number six, thanks to recent openings in Florida and Malaysia. Another is the quantity of Lego bricks made each year, by current count more than 30 billion. Enough Lego pieces have been manufactured for every person on earth to have 80 of them.

Yet the depth of Lego fever lies beyond statistics: There are Lego fan clubs and competitive Lego building leagues and Lego seminars taught at MIT. Lego world records (the tallest Lego structure stands 106 feet in Prague) rise and fall as quickly as spindly plastic towers. Name your favorite entertainment—a Star Wars movie, say, or World Cup soccer—and odds are you’ll find an online reenactment of it starring Lego figurines.

Though the brand has evolved to reflect the world around it, part of its great appeal is its consistency. A Lego brick today meshes harmoniously with a Lego brick of the 1950s, and the pleasure it imparts is very much the same. Playing with Legos, a kid enjoys a grown-up sense of achievement and a grown-up gets the thrill of feeling like a kid.

Read VIA's feature on Carlsbad, Calif., home to Legoland and other splashy activities.

Photography courtesy of Legoland California Resort

This article was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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