Please don’t touch daddy’s Lego

The new 5,922-piece Taj Mahal model proves the classic kids’ toy isn’t just for kids anymore

In the 50th year of its ubiquitous plastic brick, it was fitting that Lego would release its largest model ever. Standing over 50 cm tall and comprised of 5,922 individual pieces, the minarets and domes of its Taj Mahal are astounding in their accuracy. But given its $400 price tag and the 50 hours of “advanced building techniques” it requires, Lego isn’t marketing it to kids. Instead, the Taj Mahal is targeted at the increasing number of grown-up enthusiasts.

The Danish toy company itself, as well as informed Adult Fans of Lego (AFoL), as they call themselves, believe the number of adult aficionados has doubled in recent years, though no one has solid statistics. Lego Canada executive John Lotenfoe has seen the trend first-hand. At Lego exhibits, such as “Secrets of the Pharaohs” at Halifax’s Discovery Centre, one-third of the visitors will be adults. Demand for everything Lego is so strong that Bill Pollock, publisher at San Francisco-based, tech-focused No Starch Press, has 20 books on the topic, including Allan Bedford’s The Unofficial Lego Builder’s Guide. Since it appeared in 2005, No Starch has sold 35,000 copies of the book, which explains all aspects of Lego building techniques as well as storage suggestions for huge adult collections—clear containers organized by shape and colour are recommended—and a “Brickopedia” that exhaustively catalogues the specifications of each piece of Lego.

Bedford, a Stratford, Ont.-based business analyst, is like most AFoL; he played with Lego as a child, then put away the bricks when he entered the “dark ages” of girls and cars. He rediscovered the assembly toys just before his 30th birthday. Now, a decade later, he has around 90,000 pieces stored in a closet, including a disassembled 5,000-brick three-metre version of the CN Tower.

Lotenfoe, Bedford and other Lego devotees attribute much of the adult interest to three factors. First, Lego caught the attention of grown-ups in the late 1990s when it released robotic versions, called Mindstorms, as well as a series of Star Wars models. Around the same time, grown-up Lego hobbyists were hitting the Internet and forming clubs and chat rooms to share not only their passion for bricks, but pictures of their models and design specifications. And finally, many AFoL like Lego’s recent shift back to the simple bricks and shapes of their childhood.

Nostalgia is a big draw, says AFoL Janey Cook of Chesley, Ont.: “It’s a huge trigger for many adult builders. They reminisce about the excitement of opening a new set, or the sounds the bricks make as they are pushed around when you are searching for the perfect piece.” Cook, who has three Lego bricks tattooed on her shoulder, two representing her teenaged sons, is in several hobbyist clubs and also attends some of the conventions that have sprung up in recent years. One such gathering is BrickCon, being held Oct. 2-5 in Seattle. Organizer Wayne Hussey, whose 2006 model of a Stanley Park totem pole had a 2.3-m wingspan, has more than 200 registered attendees, all bringing their creations. While the highlight for the expected 4,000 visitors will be the models, grouped into themes including castles, space and trains, they can also buy pieces from on-site vendors or talk to company reps from Denmark.

One of the attendees will be Winnipeg’s Nathan Proudlove. For him the attraction is “hanging out with people who understand the obsession.” He’s driving to his fourth BrickCon with his wife, Kathy, their two-year-old son, Oscar, and seven 45-cm-long car models, carefully packed into boxes. Though some AFoL use software programs to design their models, he prefers to find a shape through free-form brick building, whether it’s creating the exterior of a ’50s bowling alley or an orange Smart car, complete with windshield wipers. With 250,000 bricks and other pieces, carefully separated by colour, he can spend 10 hours a week on his hobby.

Tinkering with tiny bricks can also be a full-time job. After Nathan Sawaya posted snaps of his large Lego sculptures online, he got so many commissions that he quit working as a corporate lawyer in New York City. That was eight years ago. Now his pieces, which are glued together, can sell for US$30,000. A travelling exhibit of his creations opens at Edmonton’s Telus World of Science on Dec. 15. “I still use those same rectangular plastic bricks that I had as a child, but now I use them in a way that hasn’t been seen before,” says Sawaya. “Lego is a great medium for creating anything I can imagine.”

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