I love Lego: Celebrating 50 years of the tiny building blocks
On Monday, Lego is 50. The tiny building blocks have entertained more than 400 million adults and children, inspired artists, and changed the lives of countless future architects and designers. To celebrate, we gave buckets of bricks to some of Britain's most creative minds, sat back, and waited. Here's what they came up with...
Friday 25 January 2008
Alexa Chung, 24, is a television presenter. She first appeared on the music programme Popworld and currently presents Freshly Squeezed on Channel 4. Her new show, Vanity Lair, starts on 3 February. Her boyfriend, Alex Turner, is lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys.
"I made a set of letters saying 'I love Lego' in between doing television shoots and everyone there thought I was weird but I just pretended that I'd brought it along to make me happy. They must think that I go everywhere with a full set of Lego!
"I was going to make a heart but I actually couldn't think how to do it because Lego does tend to lend itself to straight lines. I didn't end up using the whole box because I only needed black and white with red for the base so I hope I don't get in trouble for only picking the colours I like.
"I played with Lego quite a lot when I was little – it was my wet-playtime toy – but I don't remember ever making anything very impressive. I tried to build a horse once but it ended up looking more like a box.
"One Christmas my cousin made me and my brother a pirate ship and we had mini Lego pirate men to go with it. It stayed in our house for years. I fancied recreating it this time but I didn't have enough brown pieces to make the timber."
Sir Paul Smith
Sir Paul Smith, 61, is one of Britain's most successful fashion designers. He started out in 1970 with one shop in Nottingham selling menswear, and today produces a dozen collections sold in 35 countries. His autumn/winter 2008 womenswear show will be held during London Fashion Week next month. He also collects toys.
"We've made a rabbit out of Lego because Paul Smith has always had an association with rabbits. In the early Eighties I was travelling on a train with an American friend of mine, and as I was looking out of the window, he said to me, 'Paul, what are you looking for?', and I just said, 'I'm looking for a rabbit, because if I see a rabbit then my collection will be successful'.
"I'd just said it for a laugh. But a week later, he sent me a ceramic rabbit from Tiffany's. Then he must have said something to somebody, because since then I've been getting several rabbits every week. People make them out of wire, steel, even kimono fabric. I was even given a live rabbit once. I don't eat rabbit now, I always think, 'Oh, if it's good luck then I can't possibly eat it'.
"I didn't play with Lego as a child, but my wife's grandchildren love it. The hardest thing is understanding the structure of it. Once you've got the hang of that, it's fantastic.
"The interesting thing about children is that you can buy them the most amazing toy and they'll play with a shoebox. The thing with Lego is that it's really basic and from it you can make things that are amazing. You can do a tower – or you can do a rabbit."
Rankin Waddell, 41, is a photographer and co-founder of the magazine Dazed & Confused. His previous subjects have included The Queen and Tony Blair. His latest book, a retrospective called Visually Hungry, is now available through Turnaround Publisher Services.
"My model is a copy of one of my photos, called Hundreds and Thousands, which I did for a book called Tuulitastic - A Photographic Love Letter, about my girlfriend [the model Tuuli Shipster].
"I thought it would be nice because it's a fun image and I thought it would be cool to do something about desire; about being hungry for images. That image created by the model is erotic, but it's trying to put a fun slant on the erotic so it's not up it's own arse; not so elitist. Like my photography, it's about creating an erotic image that's accessible and that's a bit of a laugh. It also has connotations of being edible, I think.
"The model actually took me about 10 minutes to put together, although I was rubbish at Lego as a child. I couldn't put Lego pieces together using an instruction manual; I was awful at things like that. I came to photography later."
Vincent Cable is the Deputy Leader and economic spokesman for the Liberal Democrats. Between October and December he served as party leader, famously comparing Gordon Brown to Mr Bean during a session of Prime Minister's Questions. Aged 64, he is a keen ballroom dancer.
"I'm not very manually dextrous, which is why I like Lego. You don't need to fiddle with nuts and bolts like Meccano; it's physically easy to do if you can get your head around it.
"I had train sets as a child, but discovered Lego through my children. My younger son was very technically minded and made advanced Lego Technic models, which he'd get me to help him with. He's now a theoretical physicist, and I think the spatial intelligence involved in creating three-dimensional models was an important part of his education.
"We have a collection at home waiting for the next generation. We spent my grandson's fifth birthday making a Lego racing car.
"I've been snowed under with the Northern Rock affair, so my team and I came up with the idea of building the Bank of England. We took a photo of the façade and then spent the morning constructing it. My portfolio revolves around the Bank, so I'm familiar with both the front and back entrances of the building."
Trevor Beattie, 47, is a founding partner of advertising agency BMB. As chairman of TBWA, he was behind a string of high-profile and often controversial advertising campaigns – most famously the FCUK series of ads for French Connection and "Hello boys" for Wonderbra.
"It was so daunting, getting that bucket of bricks. When I saw that, it freaked me out. It took me the best part of two days to build my model – 12 to 15 hours at least. Monumental was the key: I wanted to create a child's-eye view of some of the events of the past 50 years. So, if you were a child living at different stages in the past half century, how would you have seen major world events through Lego?
"Ideas I had included doing the Moon landing, and I was also thinking about doing an iPod. But then I found the Moon far too spherical. That is the issue I have with Lego: it has no round edges. I thought about doing a square Moon, and then I thought about doing a square Earth, but I thought someone else would do that.
"Then I settled on the twin towers. I've left the holes in the towers from 9/11, where the planes crashed, and made each building hollow. I've used every brick, everything except the wheels and glass. I wanted more bricks, as the towers are not tall enough in proportion. Lego lent itself to the towers' surfaces – when you put them together they create a smooth, glass-like effect.
"When I was a kid, I was more of an Airfix boy than a Lego boy. I found Lego very restrictive because you have to create right angles. Because of that, some of my other early ideas for this included gluing something together in a shape. Then I thought I would melt all the Lego down and pour it into a mould. But I didn't have time. Right angles led me to the towers."
Right Said Fred
Richard Fairbrass, 54, and his brother Fred, 51, founded the band Right Said Fred in 1989. They had hits with "I'm Too Sexy", "Don't Talk Just Kiss", and "Deeply Dippy" and are currently recording a new album.
"My brother and I knew straight away that we wanted to make a guitar out of our Lego, but it was trickier than we thought because there are no curved pieces – Lego is geared more towards houses or structures.
"We didn't have any arguments about how it was going to look or anything – there are very rarely any creative disagreements in our partnership.
"Actually, we had Lego and Meccano in our toy box when we were growing up. Meccano was good because it was mechanical – all those nuts and bolts – but you couldn't build houses or streets with it. Lego is creative in a different way and what's interesting about it is its longevity, especially given all the computer stuff that's happened in the past 15 or 20 years.
"Fifty years is quite amazing but when the idea behind something is so clean and simple then it's not affected by the technological advances that sweep by.
"Children have endless options of things to play with now but they seem to enjoy the physical, hands-on aspects of Lego. So many things these days are virtual but you can actually hold Lego and create something with it. Lego gives them the tools so they can make it up as they go along."
Manchester-born Peter Saville, 52, is a legend of graphic design and art direction. A founding partner of Factory Records for whom he created record covers for New Order and Joy Division, Saville has also shaped "visual identities" for Selfridges, The Pompidou Centre and fashion clients including Givenchy and Yohji Yamamoto. He lives in London.
"I grew up with Lego. My brothers had Meccano, which I found rather archaic. Lego was terribly modern. So, when I got this starter pack, I wondered if I could turn it into something else. Since 1998 I've made a series of abstract colour-field images that I call waste paintings. They're made by shredding media – commercial material we had made in the studio – and I saw it as a response to the obsolescence of images in our culture.
"Using filters on Photoshop, we found we could effectively recompose work by moving pixels around within a picture plane. But they were also inspired by the recycled plastic called "made-of-waste" that was used in the Nineties, and Victorian "end-of-day" glass, which is made of leftovers and is streaked with colour. It's a chance-orientated aesthetic.
"So I thought, I wonder if we could shred this Lego? Smile Plastics, who produce "made-of-waste", said they'd done Lego before. They had once been asked to melt bricks for the tabletops in the Legoland café, but the bosses at Lego decided it was contrary to brand values.
"I sent my Lego there, and they melted it down and made an abstract colour field piece. It's beautiful. It's unrepeatable. It's creativity out of destruction – like all recycling. I would question the validity of the act with certain objects. I don't think a Fabergé egg would be a good idea. The thing is, there is nothing I wish to say with Lego, as a construction. I know this was an anarchic gesture, but I felt that the situation demanded that response."
Amy MacDonald, 20, is a Scottish singer-songwriter whose debut album, This is the Life, went to No 1 in the UK charts earlier this month. Her first single "Poison Prince" was about Pete Doherty's drug addiction, and she recently accused X Factor winner Leon Jackson of having "lazy-itis" when he failed to perform at Edinburgh's 2008 Hogmanay celebration.
"My sister was more of a Lego fan than I when we were younger, so she enjoyed helping me and giving me her creative input. I was more of a fan of Duplo because it was chunkier and easier to use, and required less mental energy. My sister and my dad would always be building things, but whenever I tried to join in I would lose patience.
"I made a model of Freddy Krueger because I'd just watched the Nightmare on Elm Street DVD boxset. I remember trying to watch the films when I was younger and blanking them from my memory because they were so horrible. Now they're just comical.
"I also made a miniature Schnauzer, because we used to have one; he was a wee character and I had a soft spot for him. I love cars, so I made one of those too. But it's quite hard to make a particular model out of Lego without an instruction manual. So it looks like a Mr Magoo car."
Trevor Baylis is an inventor whose most famous invention is a wind-up radio. Aged 70, he runs Trevor Baylis Brands, a company dedicated to aiding inventors.
"When I picked up the box of Lego I did wonder what I was going to do with it. I thought that the obvious thing would be to make a building but that's a bit boring. Then I looked around my workshop – the graveyard of a thousand domestic appliances – and I said, 'Blimey, this is perfect', so I've made a reproduction of my workshop.
"There's my workbench with my lathe on it, my pillar drill, my grinding wheel, my grindstone, a computer and a first-aid box. It was a bit of fun, and you know what, I can understand why kids play with it: it's good stuff.
"I'm a Meccano man, simply because Lego wasn't around when I was born. I couldn't write my name but I could do the most amazing things with Meccano and I could tell you what bolt, what washer, gear and goodness knows what by the time I was five. There's an expression I like, 'chance favours the prepared mind'. It means that there are certain skills in your life you'll never forget, and they are the sort of skills that Lego and Meccano give you."
Ken Shuttleworth, 55, is the architect responsible for sketching the original design of London's Swiss Re tower (widely known as"the gherkin"). Previously of Foster and Partners, he founded his own practice, Make, five years ago. His current high-profile projects include 55 Baker Street, St Paul's Information Centre, Grosvenor Waterside and Noho Square, the former Middlesex Hospital in London.
"Playing with Lego is part of the process of becoming an architect. As a kid you build models and start to enjoying the three-dimensional world through things such as Lego.
"We really enjoyed making our model. It's a metaphor for an ecological city. It's basically an axiom in fourdirections. It is four constructions coming out from a single point. One represents the living accommodation, showing windows and doors. The other three balance that. One deals with energy production, featuring windmills and solar panels, another with water collection, and the fourth, food production. You need all four to be balanced to stop it tipping over. If you take one away, it all falls over.
"We've used every piece you gave us. I was tempted to go out and buy more at one point!"
To see videos of other inventive uses of Lego, including a knitting machine made from the iconic bricks, go independent.co.uk/lego
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