Creativity rules Lego’s land of plastic bricks

lbonner@newsobserver.com March 1, 2014 

— In Lego world, Stephen Gerling and Chris Steininger are celebrities.

They are two of the master builders employed by the Danish toy company who design the giant models of superheroes, animals, and book and movie characters of the kind that enraptured visitors at Lego KidsFest this weekend.

KidsFest is a giant Lego playground and retail center where lovers of the building bricks can pose with a Lego Disney Princess, a model Batman, or a giant Lego Hulk. Interest in the enduring toy had parents and children from North Carolina and surrounding states lining up to create their own skyscrapers, race Lego cars or battle with robotic vehicles at the Raleigh Convention Center. The event is sold out. More than 27,000 are expected to attend by the last Sunday session.

Lego is enjoying a cultural moment, with “The Lego Movie,” essentially a 100-minute product placement, sitting at the top of the U.S. box office for three weeks. The movie’s heroes were incorporated into the festival, with Lego renditions of the animated stars near the entrance and people in costume posing for pictures at one of the exhibit areas. But as the popularity of an area called the Big Brick Pile demonstrated, plenty of kids are happy to sit in a mountain of loose bricks.

Master builders accompany the traveling Lego shows to offer the toy’s fans advanced construction tips and to answer general questions.

“It’s an opportunity to give them pointers to better their own creations,” said Gerling, who has been a master builder for nearly 18 years.

At the end of Steininger’s session, children lined up for high-fives, to have him praise their robots and jets, and to pose for pictures with him. One girl asked to hug him. Gerling spent part of the afternoon autographing movie posters.

Steininger fielded a lot of questions about the models and the question he said later comes up most often – how to get a job as a master builder.

It’s not that easy, said Steininger, since there are only seven such jobs in the United States. But the company employs 12,000 people around the world in creative and sales positions, he said.

Most of the master builders are skilled artists, he said. Steininger, 30, has a background in carpentry and furniture-making and started with the company as a model-gluer. His father is also a master builder. Gerling is a sculptor.

D.J. Happer, 12, has been playing with the building bricks for about five years. He was one of dozens of kids to crowd around Steininger to show his creation.

“It challenges you,” Happer said of the toy. Sometimes he will take one of the Lego kits and build according to instructions, then break it apart to build something he has made up.

Stacy Happer, D.J.’s mother, said she used to get frustrated when she stepped on plastic bricks children left on the floor. “Then I found out that it really kept them quiet, so it was a good thing,” she said.

Part of the Lego appeal is that parents who enjoyed the toy when they were children are happy to now play with it alongside their own kids.

“I have no idea what I’m making,” said James Armstrong, 52, as he attached a small brick to something that looked like a robot. “It’s just completely free to do what you want.”

Armstrong came to Raleigh from Asheville with his fiancee and her children, including Kiernan Brewer, 9, who built a spiral staircase.

Kiernan said she enjoys playing with the bricks when her 13-year-old brother lets her.

Armstrong called Lego “a family thing.”

“She’s doing her thing,” he said. “I’m doing my thing, and we’re both having fun.”

Bonner: 919-829-4821; Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner

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