OBITUARY : Godtfried Kirk Christiansen

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The Independent Online
One hundred and ten billion pieces of Lego, the plastic construction toy, were moulded during the period 1949 to 1990. Godtfred Kirk Christiansen helped to develop the Lego Group, a family company based at Billund in Denmark, from a small national business to become perhaps the best-known international firm in its field.

Lego (the name is based on the Danish phrase "Leg godt", "Play well", and in Danish is pronounced Leego) was founded by Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1932 when his business as a local carpenter failed. He began making wooden toys and his 12-year-old son Godtfred helped him in the workshop since schooling at Billund, a remote settlement in Jutland, was only on alternate days. It was Ole Kirk Christiansen who after the Second World War became enthusiastic for technological advance and in 1949 acquired machinery for plastic moulding. This led to the production of "Automatic Binding Bricks", the forerunner of the Lego brick, partly based on a British product made by Kiddicraft which had not been patented in Denmark.

In 1958, the year of Ole Kirk Christiansen's death, soon after Godtfred's appointment as managing director, the design breakthrough was made for Lego blocks, with an improved system of interlocking the studs on the upper face with the underside of the block, now formed as a series of hollow vertical tubes. This overcame the two difficulties facing all previous building toys, that had to depend either on the force of gravity for stability or on adhesives and connectors that inhibited rapid rearrangement of the parts.

Lego bricks were made in brightly coloured plastic, in red, white, yellow and blue. The architectural style which they represented was contemporary, without any pretensions to high art. Lego may be claimed to have influenced some of the forms and colours of Post-Modern architecture, rather than the other way round.

The major contribution of Godtfred Kirk Christiansen (or "GKC", as the company knew him) was in international marketing, linked to the continuous development of the design and technology of the product. His father had hung a sign in his workshop saying "Only the best is good enough" and the company typifies the Nordic sense of responsibility towards children and quality in design.

The progress from simple building bricks to the present extensive (but never bewildering) variety of themed toys and characters has been evolutionary. Product lines have been introduced and occasionally withdrawn after a few years, but the general tendency has been to find appropriate versions of Lego to appeal to both girls and boys, from infant level up to teenage. The success in sales is a testimony to the careful research and testing, in contrast to the short-term, television- and film-linked promotional crazes that constitute a very differ- ent sector of the toy market.

Christiansen was personally responsible for the development of the Legoland theme park at Billund, which opened in 1968 and has become a great tourist attraction for Denmark. Like the bricks themselves, it began with a simple idea that caught on, namely that since large and elaborate models built of Lego attracted admiring crowds in department stores, they might do the same in the open air. The company initially resisted proposals for further parks in other countries until recent decisions led to the development of parks at Windsor (due to open in April 1996) and in Carlsbad, California.

In addition to the factory and the airport at Billund that originated as the company's private airfield, the success of Lego is the basis for the prosperity of the town and region. The family fortune is estimated at around $5bn. Charitable contributions are made to children's causes, and chairs have been sponsored at MIT and at the IMD business school in Switzerland. The Lego Prize, worth approximately pounds 100,000, of which the symbol is the Nordic Tree of Life "Ygdrasil", is awarded in recognition of extraordinary contributions to improving the conditions under which children live and grow.

The family, now represented by Christiansen's son Kjeld who succeeded him as managing director in 1979, still live in Billund, where their presence is considered essential to the well-being of the company.

Alan Powers

Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, toy manufacturer: born Billund, Denmark 8 July 1920; managing director, Lego 1957-79; married (one son); died Billund 13 July 1995.