With the wave of nostalgia for Lego reaching its crescendo in the past year with the release of the Lego Movie, and with being lucky enough to be involved in a project with Lego, I thought it worth reflecting on why, for me, it has such an enduring appeal.
Growing up in the 80s I remember coveting the annual Lego catalogue, poring over every set dreaming of having some of the bigger sets. Avid prototype consumer that I was, by Christmas time I knew the product codes for the sets I had my heart set on. Thinking back on the sets that I had as a child, the most expensive sets (the train and train station) were probably built up only a few times in total to this day (despite my nephew getting hold of them). This is one of the complaints made against today’s Lego sets , that kids will simply follow the instructions and leave them as perfect display objects in their collection of star wars or super hero Lego. I was at least as guilty of this as a child of the 80s, leaving most of these big sets untouched, the real fun and creativity was to be found in the box of mixed bricks that we had as kids.
The other often made complaint by adults looking back at the Lego of the 70s and 80s is that there are too many ‘special’ pieces now, longing for the straightforward brick. I think this misses part of the joy and creativity of Lego even in the expanded present day system. Looking back now, the nostalgia of Lego is as much for me in the particular bricks; forms and possibilities that became intimately familiar through endless recombinations and repurposing. What’s more it is not simply a visual memory but a tactile memory, the feel of rummaging through the box of loose bricks, running them through your fingers, turning them between thumb and index finger, recognizing them straight away.
One of the most delightful observations in ‘the Lego Movie’ was the ability of ‘masterbuilders’ to see and recognize bricks as their imagination is firing off. The most intense moment of nostalgia for myself was Benny recognizing the ‘80s technology’ pieces he needed for his spaceship. Watching it gave me a surprisingly intense reaction, half feeling the tactility of the bricks that the virtual character was grabbing, once again I was grabbing pieces out of my space Lego box, the satellite dish, the thrusters, the wee loudspeakers and the big wing plates I never had.
Looking around at the now crowded AFoL space, the larger displays that people have put together don’t interest me so much to be honest. They are undoubtedly impressive, but the sheer volume of bricks involved just don’t feel faithful to the real pleasure of Lego for me. Some projects are so large that it feels like they would be better to be laser cut or carried out using traditional model making techniques.
Similarly the art of Nathan Sawaya and others that simply pixelate forms moves towards almost being a literal voxel representation.
I love the work of MacLane and Orion Pax that work at a smaller scale, communicating so much character and story in a few bricks. The delight comes when a brick that is so familiar is re-purposed in an inventive and surprising way.