Deborah Higdon: Who’s Freddie Mercury? – Boilerplate & Beyond Vol. 14 [Interview]

At first glance, it appears that Keith Goldman has been joined by Edward Estlin Cummings for the 14th installment in our series of interviews. If all-caps is yelling, Deborah Higdon whispers her answers to Keith’s questions. Thankfully, Deborah’s answers are worth the extra effort to hear. Without further commentary on capitalization from me, take it away, Keith!

LEGO house interiorThey say that our hobby is dominated by mannkinder, and the closest we come to the feminine touch are our beloved bevy of gay men and the unfortunate epidemic of man-boobs. Our community meetings and events are virtual sausage festivals, with only the occasional long-suffering wife or girlfriend to break up the monotony. Even my own beloved interview series has been as they say in the armed forces “a mile of %&#@”, and with that in mind I sought out not only a great builder…but a real live woman. Many of you are familiar with Deborah Higdon for her outstanding architectural models, minifig scale furniture, and hatred for capital letters.

I sat down with Deborah at the Palladium where the Ottowa Senators were tied going into overtime in round one of the NHL playoffs. We talked about how the O-Train got its name, high-sticking and how to assemble a Frojista from Ikea without an allen wrench.

The Build

Keith Goldman: In your Flickr profile you mention that you’re a frustrated architect at heart, a condition that is not unique in our hobby, how does that influence your subject matter or building in general?

Deborah Higdon: oooh, we’re starting off with a serious question. ;-) considering i mostly choose to moc buildings, i’d say the influence is pretty strong. strangely, i admire historic architecture most, probably equally for the craftsmanship that went into the details as well as the design of the building itself. i say strangely because i don’t tend to build historic styles. when admiring architecture, i prefer historic. when designing a complete house, i prefer modern, and not just because i find lego lends itself more “easily” to modern styles, it’s not about “easy”. modern building allows more leeway for an active imagination. on rare occasions, i think it’s fortunate i didn’t become an architect – i don’t think i could put up with the physical limitations of engineering (what do you mean i can’t have a waterfall flowing between the 2nd and 3rd floor, falling out of the wall to the sea below?) i’m not sure that i’d have been all that good at satisfying the client 100%. compromising something based on æsthetics would be very difficult for me. the influence also comes from the design blogs i’m addicted to. i’m trying to quit, looking for a blogs anonymous group, know any? the first step is admitting the problem.

KG: You’ve built extensively in both minifig and microscale. What do you like and dislike about each scale and would you ever consider mixing the two?

LEGO microscale auditorium

DH: i don’t think there’s anything i dislike about any scale. i might dislike the infamous proportions of the minifig, (i tell myself, it’s just a toy) but as all my afol friends know, i’m not fond of the minifig itself in my mocs, (blasphemous talk, i know. i know how tbb originated, sorry andrew!) so no problems for me. but all the houses and furnishings that i build are built with the minifig in mind. microscale building is my spouse’s favourite – it costs less, takes up less space to store and less time to build – he wins in all ways. as for what i do like about these scales, i like replicating. i think of the miniatures i used to collect. i looked for high quality representations of handicraft (shaker furniture, farm tools) but i never wanted a doll house for them, and certainly never the dolls to go with them. i see the houses that i build more as architectural models that happen to be in minifig scale. i’ve seen others mix the scales with great execution, but i’m not tempted yet.

KG: On both Flickr and Facebook you quote Einstein on curiosity:

The important thing is not to stop questioning. curiosity has its own reason for existing. one cannot help but be in awe when (one) contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. it is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. never lose a holy curiosity.

What role does curiosity play in your building and what do you think about most often when you build? World conquest? Work? Freddie Mercury? The mysteries of the universe?”

DH: curiosity is huge for me, bane of my mother and father’s existence i was. i’m always looking at buildings, doors, windows, stairs, furniture and design elements and asking how can i make that in lego, what pieces can i use? can i make it on a smaller scale? can i make it look realistic. how can i make it stronger, can i get it to a fest? can i think of a new use for this piece? needless to say, i talk to myself a lot. thinking you ask? i think about dessert, martinis, new shoes, what makes people tick, what makes people not tick, what makes clocks tick. oh, sorry, i digress. you mean when i’m building. hmm, i think about chocolate, dark chocolate, which leads to dark chocolate bricks, and then leads to me lamenting that lego doesn’t make cream bricks, then the lack of earth colours in the palette comes to mind then i forget what i was going to build.

LEGO bedi certainly don’t think of world conquest, i’m canadian, we don’t have that gene in our makeup. i never think about work, never, not while in the building zone. who’s freddy mercury? never mind, i can google him. sometimes the mysteries of the universe cross my mind.

More of Keith’s interview with Deborah after the jump:

The Community

KG: Many builders seem to have a low-grade form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder: some need to make sure the hands and faces on their minifigs are in alignment, some know the set-numbers for all their kits, and I get antsy when I get more than a shoe-box worth of unsorted parts. Do you have any of these tendencies, or come across any in other builders?

DH: some friend (a self-confessed geek) said i was just a geek wannabe. i wash, i style my hair, i wear makeup and jewellery, i was terribly insulted. i know no set numbers. i don’t care a fig about figs. my sorting rules are based on usage – all green plates here cause i’d mostly only use them for grass. all grey brick there cause i’d only use them for rock and stone or metal. all dark colours are revered and go in drawers for details and furniture building. but each colour of 1×1 tiles gets its own little drawer.

LEGO roofi revere 1×1 tiles. i revere all tiles. i will revere macaroni tiles when they finally get around to making them. but i do have some ocd tendencies. my well sorted drawers are identical, no mixing of styles and brands. they are all the same size, though sub-divided. they are all labelled, in a very particular manner, with a label making machine. the blue tubs are all facing the same direction, and labelled in three places, so the contents are also readable no matter what direction they face. i inventory all my pieces: drafts, pab, s@h orders, bricklink orders and the rare set that i happen to buy. i know how much i own, and how much i paid for my brick. i like spreadsheets and databases.

i like afol friends who write inventory software so that i can track my collection. i wish i could write that software. but unless i stop wearing earrings and necklaces, and clothes that always match, i won’t be a geek, i guess.

KG: How did you discover the fan community, do you have a routine when visiting LEGO related sites, how many do you frequent and is there any current trend in the hobby that chaps your ass?

DH: 10 years ago when i interrupted buying lego for my nieces and nephews to buy some for myself, someone suggested i check ebay for used lego. i made my first and only ebay auction bid, got a ton of classic 1x2x3 doors and classic windows for a pittance and through ebay, i discovered brickbay (bricklink’s predecessor). with my sad little collection, the addiction began. i built some sorry mocs with my one blue tub and the classic doors and windows. the brickbay orders made me dare to dream, *sigh* . later through brickbay, i discovered lugnet and brickshelf. i lurked for years, many years. i found the courage to create accounts, post my work, and finally contact my local lug. i went to one meeting, bringing another female for support, and didn’t look back. she didn’t stay around long, i did. this was what i was looking for. i found the means to support my need to build, to create, to figure out, and to show it to others. i found people who understood the “eureka” moment, those who grok the brick. some afol friends became friends beyond those of a shared hobby.

LEGO bee and writing set

i was so hesitant to make the virtual community part of my real community but no regrets now. as to the virtual community, i check out 12 or so sites on a daily basis, and a few others much less. it’s a double-edged sword, having everything at your fingertips. i don’t want to see something that will influence my building too much, i want to come up with my own ideas, yet i want to take in all the incredible work and talent out there. i’m very curious about other people’s talents. how did they get a brain that thinks like that? i want a brain that thinks like that. i’m always amazed at the infinite ability to combine a bunch of plastic bricks.

KG: How many conventions have you attended, and what do you like best about the experience? Matters of finance aside, how do you decide which one to attend, is it based on who else is going? Time of year The theme? The City? Is there any real difference between conventions?

LEGO houseDH: not enough, in answer to your first question. i’ve been to five large lego related events and no matter how many afols are there or how many mocs are shown, for me it’s always for the same reason. i have found the people who get me, who care about the details and how they were achieved, who want to share their ideas, and let’s face it, who want some attention for all their work and creativity. if a public display is involved, i want non-builders to be inspired to sit down and make something – with popsicle sticks, with match sticks, with q-tips, with bricks, just make things. we don’t allow enough time for creativity. that’s my soul food. decisions to attend are based mostly on time of year and my job. i can only travel greater distances two months of the year, and of those two months, i want to spend three of them on vacation travelling in europe. unfortunately my mocs don’t travel well in suitcases and no european fests have coincided with my summer vacation plans.

The Future

KG: Our evil overlords have graciously bestowed upon us the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty and Taj Mahal. As an architecture fan, what else would strike that balance between profitability and cool-factor?

DH: did i mention i fail as a lego fan? did i tell you i have no idea what two sets my parents bought when i was a child? did i hint at my complete inability to recall set numbers? did i mention my uncoolness? i’m not the person to put profitability and cool-factor in the same sentence but any detailed well known landmark would be appreciated by me. nothing that i think about at the level of detail that i crave and the colour palette i yearn for would ever be profitable.

KG: What’s going to keep you interested in the hobby for the next say 5 years?

DH: my sanity. if i don’t create, i get grouchy. my sanity and macaroni tiles, in dark tan.

KG: Will the green movement eventually kill LEGO as we know it, driving builders and conventions underground to avoid the stigma of conspicuous petro-chemical consumption? Would you be willing to build with disposable, edible corn or soy based building systems? Imagine for a moment this dark future and give us your position.

DH: this discussion in one particular flickr group has made me rethink the issue, but so did the current disaster in the gulf of mexico. i can’t point fingers, i drive an ancient suv (albeit to get through the deep snow on the driveway beside my igloo) with a lot of cargo space to lug my many giant plastic totes containing my large mocs made of plastic bricks, wrapped lovingly in plastic bubble wrap. using our creativity, we as afols might be able to find a way to offset our carbon footprint when we gather at fests. i will not volunteer for this job, but i would willingly participate. as for abandoning the abs in favour of corn and soy, if they add suitable flavours, it would make for a tasty treat when trying to pull the bricks apart with your teeth. being a little ocd, i would never do this, but i have seen it with my own eyes. grown man with large teeth, separating my bricks. *shudder*

LEGO house detailwould i build with it? if it smelt like lego (or better) and felt like lego and looked like lego and worked like lego, then i’d definitely use it.

if every single piece came in dark tan and cream, and chocolate brown (did i mention i like chocolate?) then you’d have a hard time keeping me away from it.

5 Boilerplate Questions

KG: If you had to pick only one of your models to go in the great FOL time-capsule, which would it be?

LEGO doorwayDH: yeah, i knew this one was coming. doesn’t mean i was ready for it. ask me when i’m wearing burgundy, it’ll be sliding house. ask me when i’m eating chocolate, it’ll be the baronial doorway. ask me when the moon is full, it’ll be the grey stone doorway. you get the picture. but if pushed to choose, probably st. paul de vence. it’s the first i was really proud of. i like what i did with it, and i loved the inspiration from which it came. i cried when i took it apart, it exists now only in my doorway series.

the pedant in me says, if it’s dismantled, then it can’t go into a time-capsule, can it?

KG: If you could design an official set, what would it be?

DH: this has never been a dream of mine. in this area, i lack complete creativity. maybe an ikea store. i think i could handle that. not cool, not profitable, but probably fun to do. i could put my initials on the license plate of the delivery trucks. someone else would have to design the trucks.

KG: If time, money and proximity were not an issue, give me 2 builders besides me that you’d like to collaborate with on a project?

DH: oh, keith, you’d come to the far north to build with me? do you have a parka, can you build with mitts on? i’ve heard we have snow year round up here, somewhere up here. bring your skates, we all play hockey like pros. again, i digress. in your restrictions, you didn’t mention time travel. ole kirk christiansen comes to mind. i’d love to see what he’d do with a brick or two now. not sure if he got any joy out of building with this toy, but it would be great to experience the joy of building with him. the second builder would be someone who had never seen or touched a lego brick in his/her life, a complete neophyte, not technically yet a builder. all the clichés come to mind, a fresh eye, blank slate, an untouched canvas. but i think that experience would be pretty eye-opening for most of us. sorry, were you hoping i’d name my favourite builders? you’re out of luck there!

KG: Name a famous person living or dead who would have made great LEGO nerd.

DH: eistein comes to mind, for some reason or other. not that i know a great deal about him, or his work (i’m not a geek, remember) but given his quote, i’m sure he could have done something wonderful with a brick or two. a non-famous person would be my mom. she’s almost 80. she’s never built a set, i doubt she’s done more than push a brick or two together for me when i was 7 or 8, but i see her eyes when i show her my stuff. she’s fascinated, and curious, and thinks lego is neat, and she seems to understand what i’m all about, what it’s all about.

KG: And finally, good lady, who controls the action?

DH: at about 10 years of age, i developed this theory: two dudes/dudettes in white lab coats, pushing buttons, pulling marionette strings, pushing around weather systems, from on high, laughing (and crying) at our antics. i’m almost sure i saw that years later in the far side. at 12 or 13 i heard “spin the bottle” controlled the action, not that i would know (a much more innocent game in the early 70′s than now, i can imagine). for a while i’m sure that volcano in iceland thought it was doing a pretty good job. i’ve heard up here in the great north, it’s the polar bears. when they’re calling for their dinner, you have to feed them. but i’m sticking with my grade school theory. i always liked the thought of living in miniature.

8 comments on “Deborah Higdon: Who’s Freddie Mercury? – Boilerplate & Beyond Vol. 14 [Interview]

  1. eilonwy77

    Indeed.

    I really enjoyed reading this interview. But then anyone that much in love with chocolate and 1×1 tiles must be a kindred spirit.

  2. notenoughbricks

    Geek merit badges should be made out of LEGO! Any of us building with LEGO have automatically qualified for a geek merit badge, yet we are all cool in our circles, sort of like Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory (he wears the coolest shirts)!

    As for d-higdon, her architecture and furniture pics make up some of the coolest flickr LEGO galleries I have ever seen. I get lost looking through them. Awesome creations live there!

  3. Octopunk

    Turning the excellent phrase “those who grok the brick” also earns a geek merit badge. You’ll find it inside a hollowed-out copy of All Tomorrow’s Parties at your local book shop.

  4. JaneyRedBrick

    Great article!

    I think its awesome that deborah was recognized for her unbelievable talent, keen eye, and detailed expressions of creativity particularly since she is someone that has chosen to fly under the radar often. Besides I am lucky to not only know her works, but consider her a very close friend.

    However, I being a female in this hobby, I’m beginning to feel that playing the “female card” is getting a bit worn out. I understand the novelty of it, and I am trying to overlook it, but truly deborah is a fantastic and competent builder/architect/designer, regardless of gender. I guess I couldnt complain if every intro of a male builder declared his gender.

    One of my biggest complaints about this hobby is the narrow minded thinking of a company that doesnt consider LEGO as much as a girls toy as they do a boys toy. I fight that misconception at work (when I sell Lego), at shows (when I display Lego) or at workshops (where I teach Lego). “It’s a boys toy” mentality grows old, and my patience wears thin. This is not an attack on you Keith, I just really had hoped you would avoid the gender thing, and rise above.

  5. Catsy

    ^ I think it would be different if it was gratuitous–that is, if the Lego community were not predominantly male. If this were one of those obnoxious “hey look, a successful chick in banking” stories, I’d probably think it worth expending some annoyance.

    But the demographics of Lego hobbyists in general and AFOLs in particular /do/ skew overwhelmingly male. Overwhelmingly–I think I recall seeing a study or poll that put their numbers at upwards of 90%. There actually are far fewer notable female builders–not because women are less talented than men, but because there are statistically fewer women in the hobby. You and Deborah are standout examples, and I’m glad to see that she got featured.

    Keith’s treatment of the gender issue in the intro was superficial and full of cliches, but I read that less as a tokenization of Deborah’s gender than as part of the consistently tongue-in-cheek style that Keith brings to all of his interviews, regardless of the subject matter or the gender of the builder.

  6. graymattr

    Thank you for posting this interview because Deborah’s minifig scale furniture is great. I’ve been on a kick to try making some realistic furniture and seeing such great work is inspiring.

    I think it’s good to point out the women builders since they’re such a (sadly) minority. We’ve kinda done ourselves a disservice in using pseudonames online because you have no idea if a builder is a man or woman unless you specifically try to find out more about them. Knowing that a builder is male or female doesn’t influence what we think about their work, it’s just nice to know more about the builder.

    I’m sorry, but someone who speaks five or six languages should not have a hatred for capital letters…

  7. dshaddix

    I totally spaced out and neglected to comment this week. …oops. I think Deborah’s interview should have followed Joe’s though.

    I can’t fathom knowing my exact inventory, much less having it on a spreadsheet. That is a level of OCD that I just cannot reach, but I applaud and respect those who can. Kudos!

    I’m just shocked as hell, I thought Heather was the only female AFOL.

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