The process of plastic injection molding can be used to create many things – everything from soda bottles to heart valves. But plastic can also be used to create toys – fantastic, mythical, iconic toys – as one Danish company discovered not long after World War II, when it became the first company in that Scandinavian country to buy such a machine.
The rest, as they say in Denmark, is historie.
The year was 1946. In the small Danish village of Billund, a toymaker named Ole Kirk Christiansen bought the aforementioned plastic injection molding machine and began experimenting with the production of plastic toys. Among them was something called the “Automatic Binding Brick,” which was inspired by a British design for a plastic toy building block that could interlock with other blocks to create houses, cars, well – anything.
Ole Kirk died in 1952, just before his son Godtfred incorporated the Automatic Binding Brick into a full-blown “System of Play,” in which the bricks are used not just to snap together willy-nilly, but to form a new environment. The first of these environments was dubbed “Town Plan No. 1,” which resembles a typical post-war suburb.
Sales were slow at first, due partly to Godtfred’s insistence that there should be a small and manageable number of bricks. It was his belief that the “maximum potential” of a child’s creativity could best be achieved “with a minimum number of elements.”
“The more we add,” he often said, as he rejected new mold designs for bricks, “the more we take away.”
Creating false scarcity was also a canny marketing tactic, as kids eagerly awaited the rare appearance of new types and colors of bricks. Adding to the brick’s mystique were “design competitions,” in which kids competed to build the most creative and beautiful towns, farms and other built environments.
By now you may be wondering what the company’s name was – and still is – all these years later. It’s an abbreviation of the Danish term leg godt, which means “play well.”
LEGO, for short.