published Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

After 80 years, LEGO continues to innovate, inspire generations of builders (video, slideshow)

BY THE NUMBERS

• 650 billion: Estimated number of Lego pieces manufactured between 1932 and 2014.

• 90: Estimated number of Lego bricks that, if the 650 billion were divided, would be owned by every human being on Earth.

• 915.1 million: Possible ways to combine half a dozen 2-dot-by-4-dot Lego blocks.

• 5,922: Bricks used in the Lego Taj Mahal, the company's largest commercial model

• $14.6 billion: Estimated value of Lego franchise

• 10: Lego sets sold every second, on average, in 2013

• 34: Sets sold each second in the 2013 holiday season

• 45.7 billion: Lego bricks produced in 2012 (about 5.2 million per hour)

• 5,000: Ultra-rare Mr. Gold minifigures were produced in 2013

• $1,500: Cost for one unopened Mr. Gold minifigure on eBay

• $15,000: Aftermarket price of the most expensive Lego piece ever made, a Bionicle mask made of 3.2 ounces of platinum

Sources: Lego.com, University of Copenhagen Department of Mathematical Sciences, Bloomberg, eBay, Reuters

10 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT LEGOS

• 1. Lego is an abbreviation of the Danish phrase "leg godt," which means "play well." Coincidentally, the word is also Latin for "I study" or "I put together."

• 2. In 1998, Lego was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

• 3. Korean mountaineer Young-Hu buried a small Lego model on top of Mount Everest in 1987.

• 4. One of Lego's first products was a wooden duck.

• 5. The Guinness world record holder for largest Lego castle was built in 1992. It used over 400,000 bricks to create a 250-square-foot fortress.

• 6. Former Lego president and CEO Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, the grandson of the company's founder, is estimated to be worth $10.6 billion, making him the wealthiest person in Denmark.

• 7. With 400 million produced every year, Lego is the world's largest toy tire manufacturer.

• 8. Although they are eight times larger, Duplo bricks will still connect to their smaller Lego counterparts.

• 9. If they were real, the 4 billion Lego minifigures that have been produced since 1978 would represent the world's largest population group.

• 10. Laid end to end, the number of Lego bricks produced in 2012 could circle the Earth 18 times.

MISSING A PART?

Lego sets sometimes contain hundreds of pieces, all of which are crucial to completing the company's pre-designed models. If your piece came without pieces or some of its pieces were broken, Lego's service website, lets you order replacement pieces. If you'd like to buy specific pieces visit the site's Pick a Brick section.

YEAH, THERE'S A LEGO FOR THAT

Receiving the Legos treatment has become a watermark of true pop culture stardom. Here are some of the franchises that have been converted to block form:

• Star Wars

• Disney Princesses

• Marvel/DC Comics Superheroes

• Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit

• Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

• The Lone Ranger

• Minecraft

• SpongeBob SquarePants

• The Simpsons

• Back to the Future

• Ghostbusters

• Ben 10

• Indiana Jones

• Toy Story

• Mickey Mouse

• Pirates of the Caribbean

• Speed Racer

• Prince of Persia

• Winnie the Pooh

• Bob the Builder

• Dora the Explorer

TIMELINE

• 1932: Master carpenter Ole Kirk Kristiansen establishes a firm for making stepladders, ironing boards and wooden toys in the village of Billund, Denmark.

• 1934: Kristiansen renames his company and its products "Lego"; at this point, the products are still wood.

• 1949: Lego begins producing plastic Automatic Building Bricks, the forerunner to modern Lego bricks. They are only sold in Denmark.

• 1958: The modern stud-and-tube coupling system is developed, resulting in more stable connections between pieces; this system is still how bricks are attached to one another

• 1964: Lego stars selling model sets complete with building instructions.

• 1968: The first LegoLand location opens in Billund, Denmark, attracting 625,000 in its first season.

• 1969: Lego begins production of the toddler-friendly brand, Duplo.

• 1999: Lego begins production of its first pop culture franchise line with a "Star Wars"-themed set.

• 2000: Harry Potter and Bob the Builder sets are released.

• 2012: Lego launches the Friends line of products aimed at girls ages 5-8.

• 2014: "The Lego Movie" premieres.

Source: The Lego History

  • photo
    A large collection of Legos is housed in a special room at the Mandan house.
    Photo by Logan Foll.
    enlarge photo

When Frank Mangan's daughter Emma was born 14 years ago, he was overjoyed.

Having a baby was nice, but in just a few short years, the 28-year-old thought excitedly, he would have a legitimate reason to buy Legos again.

But once he reconnected with his youthful obsession and began collecting the interlocking plastic bricks, it was hard to put the brakes on, especially after Emma and her brother Alex, 9, exhibited just as much interest in building as he had growing up.

"It's great to have the kids, so there's an excuse there to ... say, 'Hey, it's for them,'" laughs Mangan, now 42 and a teacher at the Howard School.

After more than a decade of buying new sets on a near-monthly basis, the family's collection fits -- barely -- in a wide alcove that occupies the majority of a former playroom in their East Brainerd home. Now, the family refers to it simply as "The Lego Room."

The Mangans say it's hard to say for sure how large their hoard has become, but they estimate it's likely about 30,000 pieces, all of which are sorted by shape into more than 350 containers, many of them repurposed Jif peanut butter jars.

Rows of shelves above the C-shaped work bench display more than 500 poseable minifigures of every description, from knights and pirates to superheroes and "Simpsons" characters. An entire tackle box is dedicated to nothing but various weapons and accessories, including enough clip-on hairpieces to keep Cher, Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga happy for decades.

"I definitely feel like Legos are special. It's so varied," Mangan says. "It's amazing the breadth of different parts they have and all the thousands of different ways all those bits and pieces fit together. It's amazing."

A TOY TO PASS ON

This year marks the 80th anniversary of a Danish carpenter's fateful decision to rename the wooden toy manufacturing company he founded in 1932. After hosting a company-wide contest to choose the new name, he settled on Lego, a contraction of "leg godt," which is Danish for "play well."

Since then, Lego has become a household name all over the globe. With an estimated worth of $14.6 billion, it is now the world's most valuable toymaker, just edging out rival toy titan Mattel last year, according to a 2013 Forbes report.

The toy industry sees many flash-in-the-pan successes in seasonally desirable products that fly off store shelves but ultimately end up collecting dust in closets. Despite remaining fundamentally unchanged for decades, however, Lego's molded plastic bricks have inspired the kind of devotion that has attracted fans who are not only lifelong but often -- like the Mangans -- cross-generational.

Although Mangan started buying Legos for his daughter more than a decade ago, it's Alex who has become the family's most ardent builder, a fact even his sister readily admits.

"He just flies through sets," she says, laughing. "Even before he could read, Alex would sit and look at instructions for Lego sets and study them."

Nowadays, Mangan's time with Legos has become less about actually building and more about keeping the collection organized -- a Sisyphean task, he admits -- and finding the pieces his children need. Still, he's glad to have passed on his passion.

"It's good that we have that in common," he says. "I love that it's something from my childhood ... that both of my kids are enjoying. Hopefully, it'll continue on for the next generation of kids as well."

CODE-LESS BUILDING

Even though his two brothers often spend their time playing video games, eight-year-old Justin Martin is more likely to be found playing with plastic bricks. When it came time to decide a theme to use to redecorate his nursery, Tonia Martin says Justin, then 5, didn't hesitate.

"He said, 'Mom, I want Legos,'" she chuckles.

Now, the walls are painted a brilliant -- and Pantone-color-matched -- Lego blue. In an idea she borrowed from a Pinterest post, an entire corner of the room is tiled in green Lego base plates covered with his various Lego creations.

Martin says she spent most of her time playing with other toys as a child, but seeing Justin in fullbore Lego mode, she's happy to encourage him in his enjoyment of something that's both entertaining and creatively stimulating.

"He'll get the set and make it once, but it's never made a second time," she says. "He sees pieces and decides, 'I'm going to build something else.' He stretches that imagination."

For some, the act of building with Legos is as therapeutic as it is fun.

Ooltewah resident Bethany Gray says her son Payton, 10, has become "an absolute Lego fanatic" after receiving a 20-year-old collection passed down to him from family members. Despite having issues with focusing while playing with other toys, she says he seems drawn to Legos because they provide free-form entertainment without rules and restrictions.

"He doesn't have to convince anyone of his idea or get clearance to try it," Gray explains. "There isn't any winning or losing. It's just whatever he wants it to be.

"I think, because he has trouble communicating his ideas sometimes, it's very rewarding for him to have a means to just make those ideas come to life for himself. He's not a talker; he's a doer."

AN EMPIRE OF STUDS AND TUBES

Lego may rank as the world's most successful toy maker, but in a 2013 interview with Bloomberg, CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp said the company has never been focused on chasing riches.

"The motto of this company since its founding is that we want to be the best, not the biggest," Knudstorp said. "Our focus is to constantly renew ourselves and innovate our business.

"We really focus on delivering the most outstanding play experience, and then we'll see where the growth takes us."

Despite being named the Toy of the Century by both Fortune Magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers in 2000, Lego's prospects were significantly more bleak at the turn of the millennium. In 2003, the company was crumbling at the seams with a deficit of about $220 million, according to an official timeline on its website.

Within a few years, however, Lego had recovered and was posting a profit at the height of the economic recession. Analysts at the time suggested this rebound was fueled by parents who began flocking to Lego as a product that was more "enduring," offering greater entertainment value for the dollar.

But as evidenced by its record profits in 2013, the company's popularity is still on the rise, and local Lego fans credit that momentum to another of the company's business decisions.

In 1999, Lego began creating sets based on the original "Star Wars" film trilogy. Since then, it has created products licensed from dozens of film, comic and TV series, including "Ghostbusters," "Batman" and "SpongeBob SquarePants," among others. In his 2013 interview with Bloomberg, Knudstorp said the company is conservative in what properties it licenses, choosing only those that he referred to as "modern-day fairy tale[s]."

Drawing children in with brick-based likenesses of their favorite pop culture characters and settings was a brilliant move, says Heather Webster.

"I definitely think that creates a lot more interest in the sets," she says. "It's amazing to see how they've changed over the years and added all the pieces that aren't typical of Lego."

  • photo
    The Mangan family are passionate about Legos. Frank, left, Brandi, top middle, Alex, bottom middle and Emma stand in front of their large collection of Legos in a special room at their house.
    Photo by Logan Foll.
    enlarge photo

Her son, Patrick, 10, began playing with the company's toddler-friendly Duplo bricks at age 3 and now has amassed a collection of more than 400 Lego sets. His favorites, by far, however, are his "Star Wars" models, especially a 480-piece ship that hangs from the ceiling of his bedroom.

Although he loves to build predetermined models, Patrick says that, just like generations of kids who preceded him, he also loves to let his imagination run wild on original Lego designs. His explanation of why he loves Legos is as simple as it is true to the hopes of the company's founder when he sought a new name 80 years ago.

"I like the challenge of building," Patrick says. "They're one of my favorite toys."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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