Do you ever post something on the internet knowing you’ll look back on it and cringe? I am certain that’s the case for today’s little bundle of joy.
For some much-needed context: I was, am, and always will be a fan of Lego, no matter how grown-up I might get (though I don’t think I’m fooling anybody in that department). Over the past few years, The Lego company has realized that I, alongside many adult builders with irresponsible spending habits, am a profitable demographic, and have begun pushing “Serious Play” (yuck?), an advanced, adult-oriented series of sets across multiple themes prioritizing display. As unashamedly capitalist as it may be, I really am touched by this company-wide acceptance that aging out of imagination is a fallacy, and that exercising the creativity of one’s childhood is not just healthy, but arguably essential in today’s post-industrial hellscape. Unfortunately, the advertising surrounding “Serious Play” (yuck?) is trying so hard to squeeze into some grown-up facsimile that it’s frankly embarrassing. In all fairness, the pragmatism in art and imagination has been laughed off the stage all too often, and convincing the majority of capitalist adults that childlike creativity has lifelong value is a battle best fought incrementally. Through this lens, I can almost justify adult Lego’s sleek, black boxes, display-oriented plaques, and builder-signed instruction booklets. As someone who’s already a believer, though, I can’t help but feel like this advertising—shot in soulless, modern rooms tastefully curated with greyscale turtlenecks and minimalist decor—is an even more offensive betrayal of the values which Lego claims to protect. Like… didn’t you do a whole movie or two about why Lego loses its magic petrified in some sterile display set? Didn’t you pay Will Ferrell for that? Will Ferrell? That can’t have been cheap enough to forget in four or five years.
All this said, I have been hugely grateful for the adult Lego sets I’ve been gifted by my generous family these past few years—any time zoning out with Legos is time well spent, and I hope I’m lucky enough to find that time forever. Still, while starting to build a Star Wars diorama I received for Christmas, I realized it embodied many of the problems I have with these adult Legos, going far beyond just the cynical spirit of the brand—I’d go so far as to say these sets reveal concerning trends. By catering to wealthy, adult collectors, Lego is not only abandoning their core philosophy and demographic, but also perhaps contributing to environmental degradation with extraneous pieces in their adult designs.
Granted, though, I’m just a passionate fan—my only research comes from recent experience and a handful of reviews on adult Lego products, so I’d love to consult a more reputable source. While much of this began as a snapchat video sent to my lovely girlfriend while building the Dagobah Jedi Training Diorama, she encouraged me to share my thoughts with Lego, even though I’m still 80% sure this is the most neckbeard thing I’ve ever sunken this much emotional energy into. So, assuming that this wasn’t a prank, I decided it was worth a shot to contact the designers behind this set. Unfortunately, Lego’s email slots aren’t built for Max Todd-sized ramblings, which is why I’ve laid out my full thoughts below. I guess that makes this an open letter, for accountability’s sake, but mostly for convenience. I’m sending Lego my abridged version with a shady link to this post—in the meantime, wish me luck, I guess. As for that letter…
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To designer Jason Zapantis, Lego Star Wars Creative Director Jens Kronvold Frederikson, and whomever else at the Lego Group it may concern (I just wanted to say “whomever”),
Hi there! My name is Max, and I’ve been a fan of Lego for longer than I can remember. Being twenty-two, it’s become increasingly difficult to find time for private creativity in my life, even while pursuing a creative career (fueled in no small part by your toys). At this point, I think it’s safe to say Legos have saved my life—they’ve kept my inner child not only recharged but nourished, something it seems many others have undervalued in their lives and in society as a whole. In theory, then, I should be all for your recent push to destigmatize adults owning and buying Legos—I think the world would be a better place if we all carved out a little more time to build together or alone. However, I was lucky enough to receive one such adult set—the Dagobah Jedi Training Diorama—from Santa Claus himself (my parents keep insisting they had something to do with it, but how could they fit down the chimney? Checkmate, atheists), and my building experience has raised some concerns about Lego’s philosophy with this line, so I’d like to ask the designers involved some questions about they and the company’s motives.
Though the box art should have tipped me off, I was surprised to open the instruction manual and find bag three was composed of only two steps: placing thirty-nine 1×1 plates, and then, afterwards, placing a staggering one hundred and seventy-seven 1×1 smooth tiles on a flat surface, which is, like… holy crap, right? In an artistic decision that, to my surprise, has been widely lauded, this excruciating tile-work entirely covers a layer of already intricately laid plates transitioning from tan to brown—a gradient meant to simulate depth, which would be innovative were it not so part-intensive itself. As a comparative amateur with much to learn before attaining master builder-hood, I always assume the best of designers given the balancing act each set must strike. Try as I might, however, I can’t seem to reason why this choice was made beyond gouging this set’s price because its target demographic has a paycheck to spend irresponsibly.
Let’s not jump to conclusions, though—could this be in service of using preexisting parts? While a couple of large, specialized tiles could have covered much of the empty space with much fewer parts, I understand that this level of specialization would be a net loss—a tile like this would be far less applicable in other sets, and given the absence of many large, translucent pieces, I’m assuming they’re costlier. To my knowledge, however, 2×1, 2×2, 1×4, and even 2×4 translucent tiles make regular appearances as of 2022, many of which can even be molded with jumpers to attach details like bubbles, cattails or roots without adding extra, separate pieces. Plating this diorama with these larger pieces would not only use fewer parts, but I’d venture to guess it could save on weight and even plastic.
Could this be an aesthetic choice? Though it’s significantly more subjective, I’d say this, too, is off the table. Realism in these snapshot dioramas is a selling point, but this painstakingly tiled surface feels more gridded and less like stagnant swamp water—something the larger tiles I mentioned would more easily emulate. Don’t get me wrong, I love the detailed bubbling surrounding the sinking x-wing, but beyond this, such a high level of detail might actually work against the piece’s aesthetic.
As seasoned builders, I’m sure this was all obvious, so I’m genuinely curious—what am I missing?
Could this be an attempt at making this set more expensive under the guise of an adult complexity? Focus, you must, on… placing one hundred and seventy-seven tiles (holy crap, right?) in consecutive rows? I don’t know, man, this doesn’t seem to be in service of any advanced building techniques—just tedium. From the outside, though, boasting 1000 pieces sure seems like it might be a real challenge… and might even justify that $80 price tag.
I know this must all sound like I’m throwing a tantrum for having to spend a few precious minutes placing plastic tiles in rows, but truly, I couldn’t be happier to make room for Legos in my life. To be crystal clear, what I am concerned about is a misuse of plastic, money, and time in service of marketing a children’s toy to rich adult collectors (and making an extra buck on the side). I know I can’t be mad at a company for trying to make money—that’s what companies do—but as a lifelong fan and believer in Lego’s artistic mission, it would deeply sadden me to see this particular company sacrifice environmental concerns and underprivileged audiences for the sake of a wealthy few. Legos have been so important in life because they were accessible toys for all ages, delighting the sacred child within all of us and sparking the creative lifeblood in us all that’s diminished in so many other places. Maybe this isn’t about one hundred and seventy-seven tiles, but about accessibility, about environmental stewardship, and about being an artistic role model for fans of all ages. As someone outside the design process, I have no right to make assumptions about the design process, so I write this not as an indictment, but to honestly and humbly ask for some insight into what’s happening behind the scenes. From the outside, this seems like an overzealous and misplaced allotment of resources, but I hope I’m wrong about that.
Thank you for all the work that you’ve done in service of creativity across the globe, and happy building this 2023!
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Did you guys like what I did there? You know, happy building? Because that’s what you do with Legos? I thought it was delightfully corporate. I don’t plan on making this sort of content a regular thing, so thanks for bearing with me—I’ve got this week’s Songs of the Week locked and loaded, I promise.
You’re doing the lord’s work, soldier
I fight the battles that no one else will
As a young lad, I had a plastic bin filled with the assorted and disassembled pieces of various lego sets. I had a near-encyclopedic memory of which pieces I possessed and would spend hours digging through that bin searching for the exact piece that I knew was there, like a cat trying to get comfortable in a litter box. I know I had at least two X-Wing sets, and probably a Naboo Starfighter and an assortment of smaller sets as well. Whenever I received a new set, I would dutifully assemble it according to the instructions, and then, satisfied with my work, immediately destroy the construction to re-use the pieces in more free-form building. Once I built a giant asymmetrical spaceship of some sort, with a hollow interior that I would hide junior mints in. But that, too, was eventually destroyed, and the tasty toothpaste mint candy chocolates consumed.
What I think I’m trying to convey here is that making a creation out of Lego is a lot like creating a Mandala out of sand. It’ll take much longer to create the mandala than it will to destroy it, but the act of destruction is just as important as the creation, even if it occurs much faster. The act of creation is sacred, but so is the act of destruction, because in destroying something, you free up material to be used in further creation, whether that be the bricks of a lego, the sand of a mandala, or the atoms of a star. In this sense, we can also see that both Mandalas and Lego are models of the nature of our universe, where destruction first requires creation, and creation begets destruction. This can ultimately be applied even to our own state of being, where we exist in an interminable state that we call the present moment, which is always preceded by a past present moment that was destroyed in the process of creating the new present.
Boy Postmodern literature really got you whipped, huh? Okay in all seriousness though (as serious as a cat trying to get comfortable in a litter box can be), I feel like you’re probably on to something, but it’s not something I’m totally comfortable admitting whenever I build something. Like, the ultimate transience of your asymmetrical junior mints cargo freighter (which is cooler than anything I think I’ve ever built) is not something I have the maturity to ever admit. Every time I build something free form, or sometimes even with a particular set I’m proud of, I’m always like, well, this is it, the crown of creation, the pinnacle of all of my practice. This will never be taken apart, ever, because the divine purpose of these pieces has always lead them to this very moment. And then like a month later i get tired of it and start over, but I won’t be caught admitting that when the post-lego clarity hits.