Art of the Brick Ascension

Art of the Brick Ascension

It may not look like very much. But the extruded little plastic Lego brick with its patented two-by-four stud-and-tube locking is the cornerstone of an international toy empire. And it's been 50 years since Lego first came to Australia. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, Lego Australia is running the Festival of Play, a nine-month schedule of activities, events and creations. Recently 10 creative personalities - including fashion designers Romance Was Born, patissier Adrian Zumbo, and paper engineer Benja Harney - were commissioned to design works of art made entirely from Lego bricks. The works will be unveiled on Tuesday in Macquarie Street, Sydney, and will be on show until June 4. And that's just one of the events in the celebration.

Lego is an abbreviation of the two Danish words ''leg godt'', meaning ''play well'' - and around the world, children have been doing just that with Lego for generations (and quite a few adults, too).

The Lego Group, a privately held, family-owned company based in Denmark, was founded in 1932 and made various toys: the signature Lego brick in its present form was patented in 1958.

LEGO Parliament House by David Boddy

LEGO Parliament House by David Boddy Photo: Supplied

Many product series have been produced since then - including Star Wars and a new line aimed at girls called Friends (Lego has always been regarded as appealing more to males; previous female-oriented efforts, including one about 10 years ago named Clikits, flopped), just to name a few - but the little brick is still the core of the business.

Caroline Squire, director of marketing, Lego Australia and New Zealand, says the company had some problems to overcome in recent years, even before the global financial crisis.

''In 2003 it almost ceased to exist,'' she says.

John Peddie plays with the first LEGO set brought to Australia in 1962

John Peddie plays with the first LEGO set brought to Australia in 1962

With a lot of expansion into ancillary activities such as theme parks, ''it tried to be everything to everybody'' and went heavily into debt. By licensing off some of these unnecessary assets and selling off others it refocused on its core business - ''the two-by-four brick'' - and regrew itself to such a level that it was able to weather the global financial crisis.

Although Lego is sold around the world, Asia is still regarded as a market with major potential for growth. But Australians have been fond of Lego for a long time.

John Peddie introduced Lego to Australia. In 1962 the 27-year-old sales representative had been working for the British arm of the company for eight years and says it was ''a bit of a surprise'' to be chosen to come here on a two-year contract. ''It was out of the blue, so to speak. I was single, that was probably one of the reasons.''

He says he had ''no idea'' about Australia beyond what he'd learned of it in geography at school, but he made the eight-stop long-haul flight with a small sample set of Lego in a briefcase.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its current popularity, Lego wasn't an easy sell in Australia.

The distances between cities were long and the retail market was very different - a lot of big chains like Big W and Kmart did not exist then - and he faced a lot of resistance from retailers who thought Lego was too much of an ''indoor'' toy to appeal to Australian children. But he persevered and a department store in Sydney eventually accepted it. And from there, its success grew.

As for Peddie, he ended up settling in Australia - ''It wasn't a hard decision'' - and worked for the company until his retirement in 1996.

''Lego was a great product to start; I got a great deal of satisfaction from working with it,'' he says.

Perhaps the highlight of his life in Lego, he says, was the introduction of Space Lego in the late 1970s - ''It was a huge success: we expected it to be big, but it was bigger than we expected.''

No Festival of Play events are scheduled for Canberra, but Lego has a significant presence in the national capital, too. Like many people, Farrar resident David Boddy, 46, grew up with Lego from early childhood and it has remained a lifelong source of enjoyment, apart from a youthful period of folly he calls ''the Dark Ages'' where he forsook it for other pleasures (''I sold my Lego and bought a BMX bike''). In his late 20s he bought a Lego train set at Big W and hasn't looked back since.

He works in 3D computer graphics and is able to draw on his technical skills in his creative Lego endeavours (which, he says, also feed back into his day job).

Boddy makes short stop-motion comedy films with Lego (''It takes about three months to make 1½ minutes'') as well as more conventional, if elaborate, construction works - including a roller coaster, a shark and a truck. Some of his creations evolve over the years and he likes to design them himself.

''I tend to build anything,'' he says. And nowadays he prefers to work with the Lego he has amassed rather than buying sets specially for a particular project. ''I like a challenge,'' he says. A model of a human skull was, he says, the trickiest thing he ever built, because of such factors as getting all the dimensions right. It took him two weeks and then disaster struck.

''It took me two weeks and I actually dropped it,'' he says. ''The second time I pulled it apart and glued it.''

Total time spent on the project: five weeks.

And it has become a public as well as a private pleasure.

He says, ''I started exhibiting Lego train layouts at the Malkara Model Railway exhibition. My exhibit was awarded most popular by public vote four years in a row. Its popularity grew every year and I was finding a number of people would come back each year primarily because of the Lego. I also met a few local collectors and builders.''

The Lego enthusiasts wanted to pool their resources and have a group exhibition, but the scope they sought meant they had to create their own group and event. Thus, the Canberra Lego Users Group (CLUG) was born in 2009 and the first Brick Expo was held in 2010.

Boddy, who is CLUG president and Brick expo chairman, says, ''At our inaugural exhibition we were still unsure whether we had enough interest in Canberra for a purely Lego event''.

They needn't have worried.

''That year we opened the doors for six hours and had some 5000 people come through. We had obviously tapped into something the local community was keen to see.''

In 2011 they had a much larger venue and to capitalise on all the effort involved in setting up all the displays (many from interstate) they held the event over the whole weekend, attracting more than 10,000 people.

He says, ''Brick Expo has two main aims. Firstly to entertain the public while showcasing the incredible talent of Lego modellers from all over Australia. As a non-profit event organised by the Canberra Lego User Group our second aim is to raise money for the Canberra Hospital.''

CLUG is non-profit and sponsors Paediatrics at the Canberra Hospital (PaTCH). Last year Brick Expo raised about $12,000 which was used to purchase two AccuVein systems for Paediatrics.

''We also have a Lego train exhibit at the Kaleen model railway exhibition and travel to Sydney and Melbourne for the other Lego fan events each year,'' he says.

CLUG meets about once a month and has between 20 and 30 active members.

At this year's Brick Expo Boddy says one of the exhibits will be Australia's tallest Lego model, a Saturn V rocket that is 5.7 metres tall, made of 120,000 bricks and that took 250 hours to build.

It was made by Ryan McNaught, Australia's only certified Lego professional, who will be a special guest at the event.

It seems apt, in a way: the Saturn V was the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched but rather than being a war machine it made several trips to the moon. Lego users seem to be peaceful and experimental types and many of them aim high, too.

For more information on the Lego Festival of Play visit LEGOfestival.com.au. The Canberra Lego Users Group's Brick Expo is on at the Hellenic Club of Canberra, Matilda Street, Woden on July 14 and 15 from 9.30am to 5.30pm. Ticket numbers are limited and they are only available online: $5 concession, $10 adult, $25 family (up to three children). Tickets go on sale on June 1, see website for details: BrickExpo.com.au

The CLUG website is clug.com.au