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LEGO brick by LEGO brick

Luisa Coscarelli 

 

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Construction bricks, 1960s, LEGO (manufacturer), UK, Injection moulded plastic and cardboard, Museum no. B.62-2004, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

When I was little, my brother and I played with our LEGO bricks incessantly. We were constantly and endlessly building, constructing, and designing new things and only very slowly lost interest in the bricks. I am sure that mine is not a singular experience and many will be reminded of playing with their LEGO bricks – these fascinating objects that in their simple design hold the promise of variety and outlet for children’s imagination.

Whereas the LEGO bricks are surrounded with an air of simplicity, their inception was not at all simple, nor easy. First, there was the company, later came the bricks. Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a Danish master carpenter, founded the LEGO company in the 1930s. The company’s name and philosophy is derived from the Danish leg godt meaning “good play”, which “enriches the creative life of a child as well as that child’s later life”[1]. Thus all products of the company constitute, then and now, an investment into a child’s future, which surely attracted parents to the products.

 

Image 2: Wooden duck (amongst other LEGO toys), 1930s, LEGO (manufacturer), Denmark, Image © Wikimedia Commons

Wooden duck (amongst other LEGO toys), 1930s, LEGO (manufacturer), Denmark. Image © Wikimedia Commons

 

The initial production relied on wooden toys for children, such as the wooden duck seen in the image above. The plastic bricks that the company is known for nowadays were first developed by LEGO in the 1950s, with their final design being patented in January of 1958.[2] What many people do not know, however, is that LEGO bricks actually were not an original Kristiansen design. Manufactured by Kiddicraft in England, the “Self-Locking Building Bricks” were invented by one Hilary Harry Fisher Page and taken as a starting point for LEGO brick product by Ole Kirk Kristiansen and his son Godtfred.[3]

 

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Self locking building bricks, 1950-55 (made), H.H. Fisher Page (designer)/ Kiddicraft Ltd. (manufacturer), Plastic, Museum no. MISC.784:1 to 90-1992. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

The Victoria and Albert Museum owns a LEGO brick kit produced in Britain in 1960. The “LEGO Systems 219” kit contains 15 blue[4] plastic bricks, and on the cardboard packaging shows a girl and a boy playing with these and other LEGO plastic products. The bricks, just like clay, concrete, or stone bricks, are rectangular in shape with the addition of six round elevations that function as the mortar, connecting one brick with the next. The connection between the Kiddicraft bricks was unstable, and this is where father and son Kristiansen improved the design. While the size of the bricks was altered slightly and their edges sharpened, the main innovation was the introduction of the “stud-and-tube coupling system”[5] which connected two bricks with the help of friction. The plastic bricks had been durable, now they had also gained stability.

 

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LEGO bricks seen from underneath, Image © Wikimedia Commons. This image you can see the stud-and-tube system the Kristiansen’s devised to render the connection between bricks more stable.

 

Apart from changing the bricks’ design and adding the studs and tubes underneath, the main innovations of LEGO bricks were the use of plastic, and the creation of a system of toys that were self-referential and guaranteed everlasting “good play”.[6]

The change from wooden toys to plastic was new, risky, and received with mixed emotions by voices from the toy industry. In 1950, after visiting the LEGO factory in Billund, the Danish toy magazine Legetøjs-Tidende remarked that: “Plastics will never take the place of good, solid wooden toys.”[7] However, having bought a plastic injection-moulding machine in 1946, the Kristiansens continued in focussing on the production of plastic toys.[8]

Whereas this first innovation doesn’t raise any more eyebrows, the second is truly remarkable and contributes to the success of LEGO bricks until today. The cardboard box seen in the first image bears, apart from the company name LEGO, also the word “System”. According to the Oxford Dictionary, a system can be “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole“[9]. This is exactly what LEGO bricks are. They are not a singular set of objects with which only a predetermined set of structures can be built, but a system centred around the bricks. This system is ever evolving, ever changing; endless in its possibilities and expansion. The crucial moment in the conception of this system – that the design of the bricks has not changed and pieces from the 60s will fit with pieces produced today – is, I feel, the main reason for LEGO’s continued success.

Their appeal spans over generations and allows for the integration of “old” LEGO bricks into new collections. That is precisely what has happened to my LEGOs. They are in the hands of my youngest brother, who is, at the age of 11, still building, trying, testing, and designing new objects from them almost every day.

 


[1] David C. Robertson, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2013), p. 22.

[3] Robertson, Brick by Brick, p. 23.

[4] We might see the choice of colour as gendering this object, however, both a boy and a girl are depicted on the cardboard box of the bricks. This might suggest that a gendering of the blue bricks only takes place in hindsight, which can be supported further by looking at the top ten product characteristics of LEGO products. These were presented by Godtfred Kirk Kristiansen in 1963 and amongst them ranks the inclusion of both boys and girls. Source: http://aboutus.lego.com/en-gb/lego-group/the_lego_history/1960

[5] Robertson, Brick by Brick, p. 24.

[6] Robertson, Brick by Brick, p. 24.

[7] Robertson, Brick by Brick, p. 23.

[8] Robertson, Brick by Brick, p. 23.

[9] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/system?q=system

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Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us: objectoftheweek@gmail.com

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Luisa Coscarelli –

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is now interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how immaterial olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.

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© Luisa Coscarelli 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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