“I’d just like to make a little note,” Jordan Schwartz mentions, impossibly polite, before answering my interview questions. “It’s no big deal since it’s a little known fact; actually, I do feel uncomfortable correcting people, but technically speaking, the word ‘LEGO’ is traditionally written all in capitals and used as an adjective (LEGO bricks, LEGO products, LEGO elements, etcetera).”
Oh god. I couldn’t even spell it right.
This was merely another brick in the wall of the realization that my attachment to LEGO as a child did not translate into the fandom that is currently inhabiting the world. I assumed my knee-deep collection of starships, catapults, and skull-shaped fortresses more than qualified me to pen the article on LEGO’s role in an age of “toys” that need to be recharged every few hours.
“I assumed no one cared about Legos,” even my editor said when I approached her with the idea. In a way, so did I, assuming that because I had patronizingly outgrown them, so had the rest of the world.
Maybe I still do get the monthly catalogue, but as time goes on, I worry that I’m only doing that because it makes me look quirky and youthful. But the sprawl of LEGO into the modern world hasn’t stopped on those pages just because I did. They’ve gotten into video games, direct to DVD movies, and multiple theme parks, all in the name of staying relevant.
This is the digital age, where everything is slick and swift and useless if it can’t do what you’re already doing faster. Movement and thinking are being replaced by machines that will do both for us. I had to scuttle over to this computer in an office chair and almost vomited from all the excitement.
However, as usual, my thoughts on a subject were a mere Google search away from a mental tailspin.
Filmmaker Jess Gibson’s documentary, AFOL: A Blocumentary, brings to light just how much interest LEGO generates in 2010. AFOL, or Adult Fans of LEGO, is a widespread group of individuals who are highly capable, dedicated, and happiest with a brick in their hands. I went to Gibson with my concerns on LEGO becoming more focused on producing Bionicle DVDs than coming out with this year’s pirate ship.
“I’m not sure why you view the company’s venture into multimedia as a negative direction,” he said. “In my opinion, LEGO has always made a great product and I have faith they will continue to do so.”
Gibson was right. I was harvesting bias for next to no reason, and had come at this topic from a crotchety, embittered angle—my LEGOs are in four plastic bins in my parents’ attic, gradually adopting the thick scent of abandonment and forgetting what daylight feels like. It’s not as if suited LEGO execs were going to break in, kick all the sets I haven’t touched in a decade to pieces, and force a controller into my hands.
Maybe I should find somebody who has actually bricked together two pieces of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene in the last five years?
That’s where Jordan Schwartz came in.
Schwartz, an alarmingly astute 17-year-old, is the creator and administrator of Brickstud, where he offers his previously-commissioned services to construct you a LEGO creation the world has never seen before.
His gallery of LEGO work is absolutely insane, chock full of imaginative and startlingly violent sets like “Princess’ Murder,” where a princess lies dead on a couch with her killer lurking just outside a window, and “Quartering the Quartermaster,” which portrays a couple of soldiers getting drawn and quartered by vicious pirates. Both look like they could have been sold to the public, had the LEGO company decided to take a disturbingly violent turn.
“I’m a big LEGO guy myself,” I started pompously in my email to Jordan, “and my childhood prizes are currently tucked away in four large plastic bins in my parents’ attic.”
This was before I was informed that I was spelling “LEGO,” the most frequent object of my childhood free time, the topic of this article I’m researching, and a four letter word, incorrectly. Now I had taken it upon myself to turn to true experts and demand to know why the hell LEGO thought they could try and change their image.
“There are literally no limits to what can be done with LEGO,” Jordan responded, level-headed and respectful in ways with which I was totally unfamiliar. “Perplexing sometimes, yes, but with over twenty-thousand different elements in the spectrum, nothing’s impossible.”
Why would a company need to adapt when a single product has the versatility to be 20,000 different things? Then again, for over 50 years, LEGO has been pumping out bricks with pegs on them, so maybe the fact that they’ve survived this long is a testament to the credibility that has brought them this far. A true believer, however, is going to see past the intensely hued lights and sounds of, say, a LEGO Star Wars game (a marriage between two of the most financially magnetic franchises to ever hit toy store shelves) and just keep building.
As I’d clearly lost touch, Jordan was kind enough to fill me in on the purist’s take.
“In redundancy, the fun for me comes in building, so their video games would not necessarily entice me more than any other game. I feel the use of creative, imagination-stimulating toys like LEGO is essential in developing creativity and fostering intellect.”
“Another great thing about LEGO is that the elements I have now will fit in with the elements I have in, say, thirty years. I even have a collection of vintage sets, and all of those pieces still fit with the newest ones. The medium is so perfectly crafted, and has been since the beginning, so there is no reason why I would ever have to fear that I am wasting my money on a dying medium.”
This attitude has escorted Jordan to a variety of LEGO conventions, one of which found him in Vancouver, B.C., in front of Jess Gibson’s camera. Like any gathering of hobbyists, there was a hell of a show featuring jaw-dropping exhibits all over the room; the end result of relentless labor and patience I’ve never even been close to engaging.
“There are two sides to BrikCon,” Gibson explained. “The builders… and the general public.” It doesn’t take a mind reader to figure out that the after-hours events of a LEGO convention are going to be a filtered brand of fight club; but this time, using bricks is not only permitted—it’s required: “This is when the real fun starts.”
There’s a presentation where middle-aged programmers are side by side with eight-year-olds admiring a revolutionary new LEGO sorting machine. There’s a draft in which the rawest of builders select, one at a time, which pieces are going home with them… and there’s not even any screaming. There’s a contest to see which group can build an Eiffel Tower the fastest. All of this takes place in a soothing, low-voiced atmosphere, as if they’re spending a relaxing afternoon on the beach, listening to the waves hit the sand; while also scrambling to assemble masterpieces the LEGO catalogue wishes it had captured in its hallowed pages.
Like myself, my editor, and in all likelihood, many other people, Gibson had underestimated just how intensely one can feel about a room wall-to-wall with tiny, colorful choking hazards and the people who love them. Gibson admits, “I was aware that LEGO can be addictive, but I guess I didn’t realize to what degree.”
Making use of the photo sharing website Flickr, LEGO enthusiasts go beyond the personal admiration enabled by events like BrikCon and can share on a global scale their creations with the rest of the community that knows how to appreciate them best. When it came to the “competitive” nature that tends to arise from meetings of those with similar specific interests, Gibson saw just the opposite of what one would assume.
“… it really comes down to admiring each other’s creativity. We are talking about LEGO—it’s not that intense. You don’t wear pads and hit people or shoot zombies on a screen and try to get the highest score.”
While they may have found other outlets for the bricks, the structure remains the same, successfully chugging down a carefully-laid track. After all, the world will always have builders; which may be bad news for the rain forest, but for LEGO, it clicks their well-being securely into place for decades to come.
One look at Schwartz’s work, can give a physical indication of just how addictive the LEGO can be. “To me and my peers in the hobby, it is infallible precisely because the possibilities are endless. Simply endless,” he emotes.
“… the heart of LEGO, the stud, is going nowhere.”