A Toy for the Ages

As LEGO fanatic Warren Elsmore brings his Brick Wonders exhibition to Derry, Dominic Kearney explores the lasting power behind the creative phenomenon

I was born in 1963, number five in a line of six brothers and sisters. The house was an organised jumble of cricket bats, hockey sticks, comics, rugby shirts, lead soldiers, ice skates, and footballs.

There were screeching violins and painful piano lessons that lasted for days. We had Jennings and Biggles and one of my sisters cried because she couldn’t go to Malory Towers even though she passed her 11 Plus.

Everything had to be glued or clipped together or screwed in or oiled or painted or coloured in. Everything had something missing – usually the vital piece – and if it wasn’t missing to start with, it got lost, only to be found in the most inexplicable place and when you no longer wanted it.

That was particularly the case with LEGO. If you were ever missing a bit of LEGO, the best way to find it was to shut your eyes and walk around in your bare feet. You’d stand on it soon enough, and it was the only thing more painful than the piano lessons. 

We had plenty of LEGO in the house, but none of us were that fussed, to be honest; we were more Airfix and Action Men. And yet, this Boxing Day just past saw me playing with my best Christmas present – a LEGO construction kit of the United Nations building in New York.


I say playing, but that’s not the right word. The radio was playing; I was building. And I was completely and utterly engrossed. I’d only sat down to have a quick look at it, but I was still there, hours later, all the way through the commentary on the Newcastle-Everton game and deep into the football phone-in. And there it was – my pristine model of the UN building. I was chuffed, and placed it proudly on the bookcase, for all to see.

So what was the appeal? It was absorbing, measured, and methodical, these little bits of plastic gradually accumulating into a clean, precise whole, designed with love and care by the creators of the kit, showing an understanding of the material and a genuine appreciation of the real building and its architectural form.

Who knows, one day I might actually declare myself an AFOL. That, for those who don’t know – a group I was in until a day or so ago – stands for Adult Fan of LEGO. The company’s popularity certainly seems to be sky high these days, with a hugely successful film (appealing to both children and adults, significantly), expanding theme parks, displays, exhibitions, and an imaginative range of products which show a willingness and an ability to tap into current trends without losing its soul.

The product itself is hard, traditional, and unbending, but its range of applications is broad and flexible. A class of schoolchildren in Cork has just put a film on YouTube showing the 1916 Easter Rising re-enacted in LEGO. And the first ever LEGO figure in a wheelchair has been seen at the London and Nuremberg toy fairs, following the #ToyLikeMe campaign.

The company was started in Denmark in 1932, by Ole Kirk Kristiansen, with the name LEGO adopted two years later. It’s an amalgamation of two Danish words – leg godt, meaning 'play well'. It was only later that Kristiansen learned lego is Latin for 'I put together'.

The early decades of the 20th Century saw new departures in architecture, passionate debates about construction and housing for the masses, and huge strides made in industrial and manufacturing processes, all of which had an impact on the toy industry.

In 1901, Frank Hornby took out his first patents for Meccano, the construction toy which used perforated tin strips fastened with nuts and bolts. In 1934, Charles Plimpton began manufacturing his Bayko toys, construction sets which used Bakelite, one of the world’s earliest plastics. Aimed at children, there was an earnest desire to educate as well as entertain. They were toys, but the word came in inverted commas.

Kristiansen’s first products came in wood, and Kirk’s Sandgame, released in 1935, was LEGO’s first construction toy. Its first plastics-injecting moulding machine was purchased in 1946. Three years later, LEGO began selling its automatic binding bricks, with four and eight studs.

On the LEGO website, the company declares: Our mission – to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. The builders of yesterday are celebrated in products available in its Architecture range. The White House, the Trevi Fountain, the Eiffel Tower, the Burj Khalifa, the Temple of Airjitzu, and the Louvre are all available, while past products include Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water and Le Corbusier’s Ville Savoye: all examples of cultural or architectural significance, or both.

LEGO employs a growing team of architects for design and research, and one of its most highly rated products is the Studio, offering component parts to allow for greater creative and constructive expression. The link between creativity, imagination, construction, learning, and play – not forgetting tactility – is a key element in LEGO’s continued popularity, and a powerful reason for its growing use in educational and architectural scenarios way beyond that expected of a mere toy.

The LEGO Foundation has just announced a partnership agreement with China’s Tsinghua University for the co-foundation of a Laboratory for Lifelong Learning for the support of creativity and play from pre-school to graduate level and beyond. Instead of addressing subjects, it aims to develop skills and competencies such as collaboration, innovation, and problem solving: imagine; conceive; cooperate; produce; fail; solve; produce again.

Such thinking is behind the Brick Wonders exhibition at Derry-Londonderry’s Nerve Centre from February 6 to May 2. The exhibition features around 70 models constructed in LEGO by Warren Elsmore, who has also penned several books of his creations, such as Brick City and Brick Flicks.

The exhibition is part of Derry City and Strabane Council’s Science and Innovation Programme – Scinnovate – which looks to promote interest in the STEM subjects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Elsmore’s constructions for the show include the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Niagara Falls, the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, and the Great Barrier Reef, along with depictions of the light bulb, television, and the International Space Station.

It is intended to create a sense of wonder, a desire to conceptualise, design, explore, experiment, and realise. It’s about serious play. Children and AFOLs welcome.

The Brick Wonders exhibition at the Nerve Centre is part of the Creativity Month 2016 programme, featuring hundreds of creative events across the north of Ireland, click here to view the full programme.

Tickets for the exhibition are now on sale here. Advanced booking is recommended, particularly for peak times such as weekends, public/bank holidays and in school holidays. More information on admission prices and opening times can be found at www.nervecentre.org.