The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World’s Imagination

Book review by Deane Barker tags: lego, toys, history

This is an authorized history of the LEGO company. Emphasis there because this is less about LEGO the toy. It’s largely a history of the business of LEGO.

And it’s very authorized. Throughout the book are sidebars from Kjeld Kristiansen, who until recently was the head of the company. He is the son of Godtfred, and the grandson of Ole, making him the third generation to run the company. He recently handed it off to his son, Thomas. (Sort of – the corporate structure is complicated. I’m not totally sure who is actually in charge.)

LEGO was founded in Billund, Denmark, a small town in the Jutland region. Ole started making wooden toys, and the transition to plastic bricks was controversial. Additionally, LEGO comes pretty close to admitting that they simply stole the concept from an American company (and then several companies subsequently copied them). There was a lawsuit about this in the 80s.

The book follows the ups and downs of the company, and there were many. Ole was not a great businessman, and then there were serious downturns in the 90s and early 2000s, when the company almost went under.

Through the book, there’s a strong faith component to it all, which seems odd for Scandinavia, which I know to be largely secular. Ole was a strong Christian, as was Godtfred. Less so for Kjeld, but he still references his faith regularly.

The toys evolved over the years. At first, they were just bricks for creative play, but ever since LEGO started licensing media (Star Wars, Harry Potter, etc.), users have an expectation of what the finished product will look like.

This has been my experience. I’ve done two LEGO sets recently (see: Central Perk LEGO Set Build), and this passage resonated with me:

…the model LEGO [is] no longer an exercise in creativity, but rather an exercise in following instructions. …the jumble of old bricks created a generation of designers and engineers, while the appealing modern-day sets with their thick manuals and bricks in numbered bags created assembly-line workers.

In addition to that evolution, LEGO has had a few persistent challenges:

  • Competing against digital media, like the video game consoles that emerged in the 80s

  • Appealing to girls; there’s an interesting section of the book where it discusses how “playsets” evolved to allow girls to play with things inside buildings, rather than just building the outside, like boys wanted to do

  • Domestic issues native to (1) a family-owned company, (2) from a smaller town. They were reluctant to do layoffs (Billand is the very definition of a “company town”, and change of leadership always involved the Kristiansen family, to some extent.)

The book doesn’t pull punches. It talks about missteps and unflattering moments. Kjeld’s sidebars are frequent, and he’s honest as well.

I found that the book was a little detached from the toys themselves. It would spend hours discussing boardroom machinations, but less time talking about the products that were on the market at any given time. I kept trying to link it back to my own experience as a kid, and it was difficult, because it was hard to know what was on the market during a given period. I should have looked for a timeline. Also, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of the LEGO fans and subculture, which I thought was a little strange.

In the end, the book is exactly what it promises to be – a history of the company (in that sense it reminded me of Game Wizards: The Epic Battle for Dungeons & Dragons). However, I was looking for something more about the culture that has developed around LEGO, rather than an inside look at the company.

I suspect such a book (or many of them) might already exist, so that’s why this one didn’t tackle that end of it.

Book Info

Jens Andersen
432
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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