Originally created 08/12/97

The art of the brick



ENFIELD, Conn. -- Gazing at the shiny brown bird, the master frowns.

Click. Gently, he snaps another "feather" in place and lifts the half-finished sculpture up to the light, stroking its long neck and bill, checking its measurements against his sketches and the Audubon book on the table.

Brick by brick, click by click, a wing takes shape, smooth and curved and beautiful. Eventually, a magnificent anhinga will emerge, so lifelike you can almost feel the tropical breeze as the bird settles, wings outstretched, on a shoreline rock.

There's a hushed creativity in this strange little room, where the masters labor in peace. The quiet is broken only by some soft background music.

And the click-clickity-click of thousands of Lego bricks.

"It's just another medium, like oils or wood or water," says Steve Gealing as he digs his hand into a bucket of colored bricks and pulls out a thin, white plate to highlight the anhinga's tail. "It's just a question of seeing things in a three-dimensional sense."

Lego's "master builders" do far more.

WORKING IN A WORLD that falls somewhere between childish fantasy and corporate glory, they create artistic masterpieces as they pitch the company line. From fat-bellied, cigar-chomping pink and red dinosaurs to a sleeping baby that looks real enough to hug, they prove that anything is possible for those gifted with "the brick."

The masters are the toy company's marketing elite - a casually dressed, cheerful team of Legomaniacs who promote the studded interlocking plastic bricks in a way no amount of traditional advertising can. There are 10 masters in the United States and about 30 more at the Lego Co.'s world headquarters in Denmark. Their elaborate displays and building exhibitions appear all around the world.

Spaceships, vikings, cowboys on horseback. A dancing sultan in fancy yellow slippers and flowing blue pantaloons. A circus tent bursting with lion-tamers, flame throwers and trapeze artists. It's enough to make you rush out and buy a box of Lego bricks, which is precisely the idea. (Prices for a box of Legos range from $1.69 to $150.)

"We do exactly what you do at home, brick by brick, with exactly the same tools," says Allen Deners, grinning as he stands beside a creation no ordinary Lego builder could compose - a lifesize, leather-jacketed copy of himself.

All it takes, say the masters, is imagination and an endless supply of bricks.

THEY HAVE DEGREES in engineering and architecture and sci

ence. They've worked as woodcarvers and firefighters and pastry chefs. Some have spent years as apprentices, learning secrets passed down from other "masters," including those sent over from Denmark, where the family-owned company was founded 65 years ago.

Now, they spend their days making round shapes out of square bricks, using the same materials - Lego and Duplo (bigger bricks for smaller hands) - sold in toy stores.

Masters won't say how much they earn, but they do say they have the coolest jobs in the world.

"The biggest question I get asked," says Dave Gold, as he turns a piece of Lego pepperoni into an enormous Duplo pizza, "is, `How can I get a job like yours?"'

The masters toil in an obscure little office in the company's sprawling 203-acre complex in Enfield, a bedroom community of shopping malls and prisons, about 20 miles from Hartford.

and appear at events like the Deep Sea Challenge, a building competition sponsored by Lego and the National Maritime Center-Nauticus in Norfolk, Va.}

IT'S ALL PURELY promotional. The company says it doesn't build models on commission, although it has honored a number of special requests, such as a last-minute one by Steven Spielberg for the gremlin that appeared in the movie Gremlins 2.

And it's all a far cry from the company's origins in the 1930s, when a poor Danish carpenter went door to door selling the hand-carved, wooden toys that would make him famous. Kirk Kristiansen called his toys "Lego," a contraction of the Danish words leg godt, meaning "play well." His toy company is now run by his grandson and has sales of about $2 billion a year.

The toughest part for the masters is making the bricks look human, giving them feeling and movement and form. That is why heads are so difficult - and the ultimate test for anyone who aspires to join the elite.

Rich Fusick was given four hours to create Winston Churchill's face at his job interview in February. Another newcomer, Bill Bodge, spent $50 on Lego bricks before his interview and marched in proudly with Teddy Roosevelt under his arm. He was told to take it apart and create Carmen Miranda instead.

The two beat out hundreds of other applicants because, says their boss, Francie Berger, "it was clear that they understood the brick."

Ms. Berger is the original American master builder, the Lego-obsessed college student who pestered the company into creating the U.S. department when it gave her a job 15 years ago.

FOR YEARS, there were just two masters in the United States. Eight more have been hired in the past two years, partly because of a growing demand for public exhibitions and partly because of competition from rival companies.

Ms. Berger, 37, who learned from the Danish masters, gets hundreds of calls from people of all ages, eager to do what she did. Few succeed. One who did was Kurt Zimmerle, at 24, the youngest master of them all.

Mr. Zimmerle spent the summer of 1995 working on his job application. He camped out in Asheville, N.C., building an exact Lego replica of the town's historic Biltmore mansion.

The detail was precise, right down to the little Lego billiard tables inside and the ornate pillared balconies in front. Mr. Zimmerle drew national media attention.

But the company needed to know that he could do more than build houses: It wanted to be sure he had mastered the art of "stepping the brick" - making square pieces look round. So he built a roly-poly Lego snowman outside his parents' house in Wolverine, Mich., and landed his dream job.

SUCH MODELS can take anywhere from a day to a couple of weeks to complete. Once finished, they are carried to the production building next door, to be faithfully reproduced by a team of copiers. The copied versions are glued together for safety purposes and sometimes reinforced with steel bars.

"You just learn to work with the brick," says Mark Roe, as he methodically glues together a copy of a grandfather, snoozing peacefully on a park bench. The life-size original sits in front of him, baldheaded, rumpled and paunchy. Chipmunks nibble from a box of popcorn that has dropped to his feet. One sock is rolled down around his ankles. Look closely and you can spot a little Lego "hole" in the other.

"You are always trying for a little more realism and humor," says Steve Gealing, who designed Grandpa and calls it his toughest Lego creation so far. "You want people to look twice and say, `Was that really made of Lego?' and then giggle at the detail as they walk away. That's the challenge of the brick."

Mr. Roe hopes to be a master himself someday. For the moment though, he's content to learn as he glues.

It will take Mr. Roe about four weeks to complete the copy, about half the time it took Mr. Gealing to design the original, which eventually will be fitted with a battery that makes Grandpa "snore." Then it will be shipped off to a Lego exhibition in Florida, and Mr. Roe will start work on a copy of Mr. Gealing's anhinga.

LEGO MASTERS are sometimes criticized by more traditional artists for selling their creative souls. But, as they agonize over their craft, clicking together the pieces, it's clear they are doing far more than simply promoting a product.

They're making poetry out of plastic, fashioning lives out of the brick.

Playing well.