They Get Paid to Play With LEGOs

Have you ever seen a giant LEGO model? Did you wonder who makes them? Come visit the modelmaking shop!

Anybody who has ever built with LEGO plastic bricks - that's about 300 million people - has probably, at some point, run out of parts.

Oh, for a few more red rectangles here or yellow, rounded ones there! Then that master creation would be complete.

Francie Berger once knew that feeling. Not anymore. Now she practically swims in LEGO building materials.

Making things with LEGO toys is Berger's full-time job and has been for nearly 14 years. She works in the toy company's model-design shop in Enfield, Conn. There, in a small building at LEGO Systems Inc., the company's North American headquarters, she supervises a team of six grown-ups.

Working singly and as a team, they design the large LEGO creations you may have seen in stores, at fairs, in shopping malls, and elsewhere. They make buildings, people, animals, vehicles, and more. Some models are six feet tall or taller!

As she and her colleagues work on their constructions, they reach into bins and bins of parts, all neatly organized for easy access. If they need any more of the 1,900 different parts the company produces, a large, gleaming LEGO factory is only a short distance down a quiet, country road.

The plant is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. In the past 48 years, LEGO factories around the world have made 125 billion LEGO pieces.

Yes, there are lots of "LEGO maniacs" out there. You may be one of them.

Francie Berger was introduced to LEGO toys at age 3. She wanted to go on building with them but didn't think she could get paid for it. Setting her sights on designing real buildings, she studied architecture in college.

One day a toy designer was on campus as a guest speaker. Berger remembered her dream. "I want to work in toys," she thought. If she could do anything in the world, she decided, she would work for LEGO. At the time, all LEGO's large display models were built in Denmark. Berger went to work persuading LEGO executives to open a model shop in the United States and to hire her to lead it.

They did! They offered her a job as LEGO's first model designer in the US. She gladly accepted and has never tired of the work. "What it always comes back to is that this is fun," she says, leading a reporter around an office in which designers can easily exchange ideas and inspiration.

"People really have to be able to work together," she explains. "There's a lot of give and take, but the criticism is always constructive."

Dave Gold is just returning to his desk with a large color copy of a bright red, Indy-style race car. It has taken him a whole week to draw the car on his computer, using a toy car as a three-dimensional reference. [See bottom photo.]

Gold doesn't hide his excitement. "I've been waiting for this one since I first got here," he says of the project. It's one of the biggest he's ever tried.

WHEN the designers finish a large-scale model of the car, a group of skilled modelmakers next door makes a life-size version.

The modelmakers follow diagrams on graph paper that show where various pieces go. It's like a blueprint for building a house. Sometimes, the builders can build a big model just by studying a designer's small version.

The modelmakers work at large tables. They can adjust the height of the tables so they don't have to stoop, stretch, or reach very much. A clock made of LEGO bricks is on the wall. Flexible ventilation tubes hang from the ceiling. The tubes suck up fumes from the glue the builders use to stick the bricks together. The bricks must be glued so the models can be shipped without falling apart. Modelmakers also use rubber-headed mallets to tap the bricks together.

The car that Dave Gold is working on will take about 14 weeks to finish. It will be displayed in some Target department stores. Target sponsors a car on the Indy racing circuit. Gold got a set of real racing tires to use on his 15-1/2-foot LEGO car, made entirely of plastic pieces otherwise.

How many bricks are in it?

"I couldn't even guess," Gold says. Nor would he tell if he knew. That's because the toy stores that display these huge models often conduct contests for guessing the number of pieces they contain.

Many youngsters dream of working for the LEGO Group, Berger says. It's not easy to crack this exclusive team, though, and just being a good builder is not enough. "I encourage people to go to college in some kind of arts-related field," she says.

Even those with well-rounded design backgrounds must be put to the test. They are given several hours to construct a model of a human head. It's hard to make something round using rectangular blocks.

"The weekend before my interview," says Bill Bodge, another designer, "I went to Toys 'R' Us and bought myself a big bucket of LEGO bricks, then spent 20 or 30 hours at home playing with them."

He got the job. Now he doesn't even have to put away his loose LEGO toys. What could be better than that?

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