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Beyond Building BlocksThe story behind how Lego blocks came to epitome of cultural merging
Koh Soo-min  |
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승인 2014.05.05  23:33:06
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IT IS not uncommon these days to see one popular cultural genre to extend to another kind of industry to generate a synergetic, new culture. Of countless examples, one of the most impressive one in today’s world is the transformation of toy into a cultural item. Teddy Bear Museums and Barbie movies form a greater stream of mass culture today. However, the most interesting case among them might be that of Lego blocks. Lego blocks have slowly yet steadily risen from a toy into a cultural item, and by combining itself with other forms of arts and industries it has successfully created whole new spectrum of culture.

Redefining Lego


   Nearly a century ago, Lego was simply manufactured as children’s toy. However, with time, Lego gained its popularity from people of all age-groups, and established a milestone of creating a new toy genre symbolised by its name “Lego.” After achieving this feat, it went a step further to grow into a new cultural item by developing three unique characteristics. They are: a wide range of customers, usage of technology, and unique themes. First, Lego started attracting a wider range of customer by producing a wider range of products. For instance, “Duplo” sets were specifically manufactured for children under the age of five. Apart from Lego, no toy in history has ever succeeded in satisfying customers from such wide age spectrum. Also, it is a specialty of Lego to be mechanically operated. Such products called Lego Technic consist of gears and tools, and when it is fully built it can be operated with consoles. This process offered Lego another chance to create even more diverse products, and hence attract more potential Lego lovers. Most importantly, Lego began producing “themed” sets. Themes such as “robot,” “Vikings,” “trains,” “castles,” and “dinosaurs,” have been developed. More recently, Lego sets which are themed from popular movies such as “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” have emerged. It is through this process that Lego has evolved from a simple toy to a special tool that is also capable of story-telling.

   Through those three unique characteristics, Lego defined its unique value and function, growing as a brand. Based on the firm brand value it established, Lego gained huge group of supporters from various age-groups, and even manias. “Adult Fans Of Lego (AFOL)” emerging worldwide is one example. An avid Lego-lover himself, Lee Seon-wong (Manager, Naver Café Legoland) suggests that Lego was able to gain large amount of supporters because Lego stimulates creativity of the players. “The ability to create something new is the unique entertainment offered by Lego. I believe this is the precise reason Lego was able to develop such fandom.” Eventually, the steady support from all age-groups has increased the demand of Lego. By merging various industries such as art and media, Lego developed into a new *cultural* genre, independent from a simple toy.

Building art paradigm


   When art met Lego, a whole new kind of art revealed itself before our eyes. A new type of artist called “Lego artists” that use Lego as their medium of expression, has emerged. Some of them are amateurs, while others are professionally acknowledged artists with “Lego Certification” from Lego group. Although owning such official certificate definitely gives an authentic wisp, anyone who loves working with tiny colourful blocks can become a “Lego artist.”

   A webpage named “cuusoo” is a site for amateur Lego artists. Any AFOLs can participate in creating an actual Lego set in cuusoo. When an AFOL has an idea for a product, he or she builds it into reality using Lego and then upload the picture on cuusoo site. If the product receives more than 10,000 online votes, the product becomes eligible for reviewing by the Lego staffs, who, after consideration will decide whether or not the product will be put on the official market. Once the product is sold on the market, the creator also receives 1% of the total profit. This is a simple yet another innovative characteristic of Lego art: any Lego-lovers can participate in the process of creatively producing a product regardless of time and place. 


   Likewise, Lego merged not only with amateur arts for mass as above, but also with professional artists. Nathan Sawaya is one of the most famous Lego artists in the world. He is a sculptor based in New York, and some of his most jaw-dropping sculptures are usually those of large-scale human forms made entirely out of Lego blocks. His works range from building a 20-feet Tyrannosaurus Rex to creating a life-size human sculpture, typically using 15,000 to 25,000 blocks at a time per sculpture. Sean Kenney is another Lego artist that has gained international acclaim in the art industry. He is yet another officially certified artist who is not only a talented sculptor but also an acclaimed commissioner. Some of the colourful logos of Google, JP Morgan, and ELLE that are made with Lego blocks are the works of Kenney. His other works include Lego Mosaic, a “mosaic” of a certain photo using only Lego blocks. According to the official Lego history, the world’s largest Lego mosaic was built in London in 2010, which was 13.5m x 6.4m in size, and is known to be consisted of 384,000 Lego blocks.

Lego in action: the media 


   Lego is also proving itself to be a useful item for the media too. With various movie genres including 3D movies gaining increasing popularity, Lego became a suitable subject to satisfy the wants of customers searching for such cinematic entertainment. Lego’s first attempt to produce cooperative product with another media was with the movie industries, through manufacturing “movie-themed” products. However, now the interaction between Lego and media industries is becoming more mutual one. Not only are Lego products modelled after movies, but movies and animations are incorporating Lego into their products as well. The most notable of such case is undoubtedly the recent success of the film “The Lego Movie.” It is known as the first movie in which characters and settings were entirely created out of Lego blocks. Completely destroying the disclaimers’ belief that it would be a failure, “The Lego Movie” proved itself to be popular among the public, by earning a score of 8.3/10 in IMDb, the popular online movie database, and by receiving comments from the popular English actor Tom Huddleston that the movie was “tactile and creative, unlike other animations.”

Another popular example of Lego series in media is the “Bionicle series.” The “Bionicle series” began from the book for children, and was later produced into animation programs as well. “I especially liked the Bionicle series because I could make what I saw in the movies using Lego sets,” comments Koh Hyung-seok, an avid Lego-lover (Grade 3, Hwajeong Middle School). “I think the success behind Bionicle as a book, movie and also as a toy is that they stimulated creativity of older boys too, and not just little children.”

   Koh’s words bring us back to some of the unique characteristics of Lego and the reason for its success in media. When we watch Lego movie, we not only passively watch them, but can actively enjoy it by building what appeared in the movies.  When completed, this gives a sense of achievement to the player, and further encourages them to enjoy movie-themed or animation-themed Lego. Like this, Lego links movies with reality.

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   Over the ages Lego has proven itself as a successful case of developing its own uniqueness to synergise with other industries and creating a new cultural genre. For our world to be ripe with synergetic creativity, the elements similar to the developmental process of Lego is should be encouraged. Let us allow various art, technology, science, industry and culture to merge with one another, and create an exciting prospect of synergetic culture.


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