The LEGO Company was founded in 1932, and this year LEGO is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Graham Hancock, editor of Blocks magazine, has been delving into the company’s history for the magazine’s own 90th edition. Graham is here today to give us a brief look at the LEGO company’s founding family and their involvement with the development of our favorite bricks.
Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, son of LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen.
As the LEGO Group celebrates its 90th anniversary, it’s reassuring to know that the family who founded it were not just the owners; they were integral to the development of the bricks and products. I only came to better understand that when interviewing some of the designers who worked in close proximity to second-generation owner Godtfred Kirk Christiansen during the 1980s.
For Blocks magazine Issue 90, I wanted us to do something that celebrates the history of the LEGO Group to mark this milestone year. I spoke to different designers who worked in the LEGO design department in the 1980s when the modern aesthetic was being developed in Town, Space and Castle. It surprised me that Godtfred’s name was coming up repeatedly.
Why should that surprise me? He owned the company after all, and his son was now taking on the responsibility of leadership. The reason it surprised me was that I hadn’t expected Godtfred to have much time for the product development at that time; I figured he would have left that to the designers and busied himself with ‘more important’ work.
Niels Milan Pedersen has worked in LEGO design for more than 40 years – most famously, he created Pirates – and the owner came up frequently in his stories. “I always work best in the evenings and night. I would be sitting late and Godtfred would come around, if he saw there was light he would come in and see what you were making. He was really interested and he would always have good input because he had a very good, very basic knowledge of what a kid would want. He could see from the kid’s perspective.”
It makes total sense though; Godtfred had worked with his father, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, when the company made wooden toys, helping out in the woodworking shop and becoming embedded in the family business. From a young age, Godtfred had been involved in making and selling toys – so of course, he would have a good sense of what would work and what wouldn’t.
He didn’t always channel the voice of the child, as he had many strong opinions of his own. Famously he wanted the LEGO Group to avoid anything militaristic, something the designers had to find creative ways around, adding ‘antennae’ to spaceships that in no way, definitely, could not possibly be interpreted as weapons.
Perhaps even more controversially though, he wasn’t a fan of tiles. Torben Plagborg led the design of Trains when it switched to 9V. He told me: ‘Godtfred Kirk Christiansen was not fond of elements that did not have knobs on. He said, “if there’s a knob, you can always continue building. If there’s not a knob, you can’t go any further.” Surely, he was right, but you have to develop things and have special elements for designing and giving a model a nice finish.’
It was Steen Sig Andersen, a designer who has worked on everything from Town to Architecture in his four-decade-long career, who made me realise how Godtfred’s influence continued even after he passed away. There were still people in Billund who understood his ethos and could share it with those who had never encountered the second-generation owner. One such person was Jens Nygaard Knudsen, the Chief Designer who came up with the minifigure.
“Jens had been there since they literally were people sitting around a big table designing models and having Godtfred coming in,” Steen explained. “He really was so embedded into the LEGO culture from an early stage.”
I couldn’t believe how presumptive I had been, thinking that Godtfred would not have been particularly involved, especially as all this all reminded me of another story. The way the LEGO brick was invented is perhaps the clearest example of how he personally got stuck into key decisions.
LEGO founder Ole Kirk Christiansen with his son Godtfred Kirk Christiansen and grandson Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen.
During a meeting with his brother Karl Georg Kristiansen and Head of Sales Axel Thomsen, during which they discussed adding clutch power to their stacking bricks, Godtfred sketched out an idea that was then passed to Ove Nielsen.
Ove was in charge of the LEGO Group’s moulding shop and made a sample brick with the two inner tubes. With the sample complete, Godtfred patented the design – but then on the way back from the patent office, wondered if three tubes would work better than two; he decided that it would, had a sample put together, and got that design patented. That’s the LEGO brick.
What that story illustrates, along with the various stories that the designers told me during the interviews for Blocks magazine Issue 90, is that the Kristiansen family are absolutely at the heart of what the LEGO Group is. Even now, when the company has grown and is in many ways different to what it was, many of the things that we take for granted originated with the Kristiansens.
It’s not just Gotfred either – Kjeld Kirk came up with the ‘System within the System’ that brought in multiple play themes and of course, Ole Kirk took a huge chance on buying a plastic moulding machine to try something different to the traditional wooden toys he was used to.
When a big milestone like a 90th anniversary arrives, it’s nice to be reassured that while the LEGO Group might be a big, global behemoth of a company, it’s one that has a family at the heart that genuinely has a passion for delivering the best possible toys to children – a family that has been very much involved with achieving that goal.
You can read more about these designers and the LEGO Group’s history in Blocks magazine Issue 90, which is focused on 90 years of the LEGO Group. Our special thanks to Graham Hancock for contributing this article to TBB.