Once the sole preserve of children and the occasional (whisper it) nerdy adult, Lego has gone thoroughly mainstream. The Danish toy company founded in 1932 boasted record profits in 2020, increasing revenue by 13pc to €5.9bn compared with 2019. This was partly due to homeschooling parents panic-buying the time-consuming toy online, prompting Lego Group CEO Niels B Christiansen to comment of feeling “humble that millions of families around the world turned to Lego play to help them get through a challenging time”.
ut he didn’t just mean the kids. Though the company does not have specific sales figures for Ireland, anecdotal evidence suggests a resurgence in the toy’s use among adults here too.
“Lego bricks have long been a children’s favourite but over recent years their popularity amongst adults has increased dramatically,” says professional Lego brick artist Jessica Farrell from Rathangan, Co Kildare. “This is partly due to the Lego Group’s new product lines, created with adult audiences in mind and letting grown-ups know it’s okay to play.” Jessica says that prior to Covid, a number of exhibitions put on by Brick.ie, the Irish Association for Adult Fans of Lego, also helped initiate a lot of new adult fans. “We have seen our membership steadily rise,” she says, with lockdown boosting numbers further.
Personal trainer Graham Young (45), from Cobh, Co Cork owns a gym in Little Island, and has a YouTube channel called the Lego Leprechaun. Graham, who has played guitar in a number of bands and owns a motorbike, is perhaps not your stereotypical Lego fan. But in the past six years he reckons he has spent €15,000 on his hobby. It all began when he got his first box of Lego for Christmas, aged six. “It was a little fire engine with a nee-naw siren and I would play with it down on the carpet in my bedroom for hours, delighted with life.” He was hooked until the age of 12 and particularly loved Lego Technic, “building big cars with gears”. He then “fell out” with Lego and took up martial arts. Aged 24, he qualified as a personal training coach. About six years ago he wanted to build some kind of display table that reflected his interest in Japan.
“I went up to Smyths Toys, I was looking for figurines like a samurai or a ninja and to paint them up and maybe make a big table with grass and trees. I was thinking of model-making, not Lego, but out of nostalgia I popped down the aisle with Lego. When I was a kid we just had Lego City and Lego Castle and I didn’t realise that in the last 20 years they brought out everything from Star Wars to what’s called Ninjago which are little Ninja figurines and temples.”
He bought two boxes and “before I knew it I had found my calling. I fell in love with this”.
After completing his Japanese table and doing some more large sets, Graham decided to “take it up a notch”. Always a “big fan of superheroes”, he said, “I’m going to build the biggest Lego Batcave in the world!” The Batcave took 16 months to build from his imagination.
There is “no doubt” that it is an expensive hobby, with one tiny Lego Stud costing about 7c. “And if you need, say, 8,000 of those in blue, just so you could get the kind of sea effect across sand”, that will cost €560.
“How I justify it is I don’t drink and I don’t smoke. People have asked me, ‘How do you afford it? How much do you spend on Lego a week?’ And I say, ‘When you go out on a Friday night for a few pints, then maybe a chipper and a taxi home, how much do you spend on that?’”
Dutch IT worker Ronald Vallenduuk is one of the founders of Brick.ie. He and his wife Ruth O’Toole, an office manager, are in their fifties and live in Drumcondra, Dublin.
The hobby has its own secret language, they explain. For instance, Adult Fans of Lego — like Ruth and Ronald — are known as AFOLs. The usual teen years when Lego takes a back seat are called “the Dark Ages”. Ronald’s Dark Ages ended when he bought a bucket of basic bricks for his daughter when she was young and a Technic set for himself “for old time’s sake”. Not long after that, Lego released its Mindstorms robotics series. “I spent my Christmas bonus on it. Things just got out of control after that.”
But Ruth points out that they are not the most hardcore Lego fans out there. “We have some friends who are what we call completionist, in that they have to buy everything from every line. We’re not like that because we have a mortgage to pay. We don’t buy the €800 sets, put it that way. We would be inclined to buy the odd €300 or €400 sets maybe once a year.”
Ruairi O Leochain (40), is a primary school teacher from Athlone, who is also a wildlife activist who runs Athlone Wildlife Apiaries.
Ruairi returned to his childhood pastime of building Lego during lockdown — and made a beehive that wound up in the Guinness Book of Records.
He got the idea one day in school — but both he and his pupils were dubious that a Lego beehive would work. Then the schools closed.
“I kind of started thinking, ‘Maybe this is the time to just try it, just for the laugh’. I ordered loads of Lego.” Over the course of eight weeks, Ruairi tinkered on his project while watching Netflix in the evenings, copying the size and layout of an ordinary beehive.
He has “no idea” how many pieces he used, but reckons he spent around €200. The result in May 2020 was the world’s largest interlocking plastic brick beehive, measuring 0.08 m³ (2.82 ft³). He took the frames and the queen bee from another hive and slotted them into the Lego version, placing it in the exact spot where the previous hive had been.
“Bees don’t remember what their house looks like but they remember where it is. They were a bit confused about the doors at first but all the bees coming back went straight into the Lego hive.”
Video footage of the 30,000 bees buzzing in and out went viral. “People were calling from everywhere — South Korea, America, Germany, Japan, China. When I got the call from the Guinness Book of Records I thought it was hilarious.”
While for some adults Lego is competitive, others find it is simply about relaxation and enjoyment. GP Ann Clark (69), from Belfast, took up Lego after retiring four years ago and believes it has mindfulness health benefits.
Despite her busy life — raising two children and working both as a GP and in GP training and recruitment — Ann “always had hobbies”. She exhibited dolls’ houses for years and it was at one such exhibition that she first saw Lego trains and buildings on display. “I just fell in love with the Lego buildings, to start with.”
Ann began doing Lego sets, before undertaking more creative projects. “I love doing gardens and I’ve showed them along with the dolls’ houses because they fit together quite well.”
For adults it “absolutely” has health benefits.
“It’s great for mindfulness. You can forget about all the cares of the world. If you are building off-plan, especially, you need to be concentrating on what you’re doing because if you make a mistake you have to go back and fix it.”