Perhaps you have seen them in the store: Lego kits that allow you to build the White House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and many other buildings. Here is some background on the man who designs these kits:
Tucker is a serious sort, with a vaguely brooding air — not impolite, but not comfortable with niceties. He does not flinch from saying that he is an artist and that the Lego is a real medium. “I have zero interest in this as a toy,” he said, holding up a brick. He did not seem like the type who sets out on a Lego-based career path. And he wasn’t. He’s 40 now, but five years ago he was designing high-end residential homes until the real estate market started going stagnant, he said, and clients started drifting away and canceling new projects. He and his business partner split up, and so, rudderless, he moved back in with his parents.
“Six months into my hiatus, I sat down and wrote up a list of everything I wanted to do in this life,” he said. “Didn’t matter what it was — race car driver, dentist, architect. Then I looked at the list and refined it, and through a process of elimination I realized I wanted to work with my hands and I wanted to be my own boss — because I don’t take authority figures especially well. Also, I wanted to do something with architecture. The thing is, how could I be an inspiration to others if I was working in a medium most people can’t do?”
Here’s what he did: He drove to a Toys R Us in Highland Park and loaded eight shopping carts with Lego kits. He then came home, sat on the floor, spread the pieces out at his feet and, because he hadn’t played with Legos since he was a kid, reacquainted himself. He built samples and took them to a Lego convention in Washington, where he caught the eye of Lego brass.
He found Lego at the right time: After going through a rough patch in the late ’90s, the company was ready to refocus on design, and by 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, sales were up 40 percent, making it the rare company that not only weathered the recession but didn’t feel it. Tucker, meanwhile, rounded up licensing agreements with building owners. “I got a sense he didn’t have many contacts, so I set him with the people in other important buildings,” remembered Randy Stancik, the general manager of the Skydeck at Willis Tower, where Tucker’s Willis Tower kit has long been the most popular tchotchke in the building’s gift shop.
Tucker’s relationship with Lego is complex. He is not a Lego employee. With his wife, Brittny, he runs Brickstructures, which has a long-term contract that says he can only design kits for Lego. He also distributes the Architecture series in North America himself, using Lego’s warehouse in Wood Dale (though Lego distributes the series internationally). When I asked who owns the rights to the kits, he said it’s a gray area.
Is this a success story from the new American economy? Alas, it seems like there is only one such job available…
Some additional thoughts:
1. I’ve wondered this for a long time as a Lego fan: why are these sets so expensive?
2. Does Lego have a larger goal of helping people understand the world’s great architecture? If not, why not bill these as educational products? Then you might really see these fly off the shelves.
3. If I had to guess, I would say these sets are bought primarily by highly educated people. Perhaps we can apply Bourdieu to this: lower-class people buy them because they are fun to play with and make a nice decorative piece while the middle- and upper-classes appreciate the aesthetics (squared off as they may be) and knowing about great architecture.
4. Are Lego creations considered art by the broader art community?