When I posted my first Space LEGO dinosaur on Flickr back in August 2015 I never expected the response it received. There was something about a stegosaurus built in the style of LEGO’s Classic Space sets that chimed with the community. Even before the popular LEGO websites picked up on the model, comments and likes were multiplying faster than I could keep track of. People I’d never spoken to before were asking if I could put the build on LEGO Ideas; they wanted to vote for it to become an official set! I was flattered, and a little confused; out of the many creations I’d posted online what made this one so special?
It wasn’t until I took three of the dinosaurs to Brick, the huge LEGO show in London, that I started to better understand things. I’d like to say that it was the sophisticated building techniques I used that made it popular, but that would be a lie. Although competently made there were hundreds of better built LEGO marvels at the exhibition. Even the aesthetic design, whilst polished, borrowed heavily from familiar tropes and other recognisable franchises. What made them a hit was the simple fact that dinosaurs are pretty cool. Mix this with space age robotics and a splash of nostalgia and the wining formula was complete.
A gaggle of children, normally under the age of ten would stop point, coo and exclaim: “awwwesome… look, space dinosaurs.” Standing behind them a dad who looked suspiciously like me nodded in agreement, and would sagely add: “look at those pieces, that’s the sort of LEGO set I remember.” Some would also throw in words like Zoids, Dinobots or Robotix, and we’d exchange further knowing looks.
Reflecting on the events of the show I dug a little deeper into what I build and why? There are definitely two sides to what I do as a LEGO builder. One is linked to the part of me who went to Art College and now works for a university, teaching art theory from time to time. His creations reference Ancient Greek art and folk traditions such as needlecraft and paper cuts. The other has unfinished business with the important task of a ten year-old who is still trying to build the most amazing spaceship possible!
As a young builder, Space was without a shadow of a doubt my LEGO theme. Each year the new catalogue was released and my brother and I would quickly turn to the Space page. We would point out the models we wanted, earmarking birthday presents and Christmas gifts in January.
Our free building activities followed in the same vein. Spaceships, rovers, robots and lunar bases were our staples. Where I favoured the idiosyncratic look of science fiction models, which had scant regard for practicality as long as they looked beautiful, my brother focused on engineering challenges and functions. Between the two of us we made good progress in emulating our heroes, the designers of the official LEGO sets. It is with great pride that I remember mastering the tricky art of detailing a Space model with lights, panels and antennae, a task I considered integral to the official sets. I was rewarded when my friends from school volunteered the highest praise: “That could be a real set.”
In many ways when I returned to LEGO building in my late thirties, I picked up where I left off. My aim was to build in the style of the designers of my childhood sets, but now with the skill and artistic vision of an adult. Where before the ultimate goal was to build as well as the designers, now I had the expertise to match their work, but also the freedom to work outside the conventions of toy design. Even the most cursory of scans of my builds reveals an obsessional pursuit of this. How many three-wheeled space rovers can I make, what would a pyramid spaceship look like and how do you build a space elephant?
What I find fascinating about the Classic Space LEGO theme is how open it is as a design brief. It is more than the use of certain colours in particular combinations, which it is often reduced to. When I see a blue and grey science fiction creation presented online as a Classic Space model, most of the time I’m simply looking at a blue and grey spaceship. Conversely I’ve had to laugh at the pedantry of the community that has informed me I’ve made my models incorrectly based on arbitrary rules divined from a handful of sets. I’ll never forgot the horror some people experienced when I inverted the yellow and black stripes commonly found on early Classic Space sets on my Space Wedge Model. Black and yellow stripes in the right order do not make a Classic Space set.
The LEGO designers of the early Space sets certainly didn’t fix hard and fast rules for themselves. New colour combinations were constantly being introduced. In many ways the range portrayed a mismatched oddball collective of scientific space exploration vehicles. Yet, there is a tangible quality shared by them all. I think of it as a post-Star Wars re-imagining of the NASA programme. Taking the clunky technology of the 70s and 80s and mixing it with aspirations of an established lived-in future world as portrayed in the Star Wars films. The result is often quirky in its aesthetic rendering of pragmatic function. Space sets looked as if they had a purpose without being explicit what that function was. A great Space design for me is a model with lots of apparent scientific equipment on display without enforcing what any of it does.
This way of working leaves builders with several different ways of taking the theme forward. Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their magnificent book LEGO Space took one route. Channeling the sleek spaceship designs of the first wave of Space sets and remodeling them with all the skill of modern building techniques. Importantly they spliced this with the direction science fiction design has moved in the era of digital design. The result is a wonderful alternative world of space exploration. On discovering their work it felt like finding a couple of kids in the next town who had come up with a different, yet equally brilliant space universe to mine.
My own take on Classic Space starts from very different sets though. The twin digger/grabber rover 6880 Surface Explorer, the crazy tower/robot/base 6951 Robot Command Centre and the AT AT imitating walking dinosaur 6940 Alien Moon Stalker sum up my LEGO DNA. It is a world where functional design is pushed beyond use into impracticality for the sake of whimsical design. It’s a way of working I feel great affinity for. When I start to build I tend to come up with an interesting exaggeration, a canopy design that pushes the parts further than they are supposed to go, or something as simple as placing radar dishes at certain points to insinuate a face. For me these twists make a Space model infinitely cooler than any deadly armed star fighter will ever be.
I’m not alone in this approach. My kindred spirits are builders like Crismso Geiger, who makes sequences of creations by reusing small selections of Classic Space pieces, and my sometimes Space competition collaborator David Roberts, who mixes, space, whimsy and engineering functions. Together we seem at odds with the science fiction designs of today remaining resolutely attuned to an eccentric nostalgia for a future that never was.
All of this analysis still hasn’t fully answered my question though, what made space dinosaurs more popular than all my other quirky, inventive and unique Space creations? The missing ingredient is a simple child’s perspective. Where perhaps my other Space creations are over-designed, suffering from a complicating adult perspective that understands composition and design, the dinosaurs were my son’s idea. Over the summer holiday we spent an afternoon building, and in a throw away statement he said: “Daddy, can you build me a space dinosaur?’ What a fantastic idea I thought! Why didn’t I come up with that?
Once the idea was set, I had a fresh focus for pushing pieces into new design purposes. Where before I was looking for innovative canopy designs, I was now looking for vintage Space pieces that could stand in for parts of a dinosaur. I looked first of all for the archetypal elements of a dinosaur: what signified each of the classic beasts. For a stegosaurus it had to be the dorsal plates. A flash of inspiration and I realised I could deploy classic angled yellow canopies to achieve this. As I continued to build, I remembered that other toy companies, specifically Zoids, had approached this idea and that it would be good to acknowledge this. As a reference to these great toys I borrowed elements such as the tail pilots. The finished creation took me no more than three hours to make, but despite its immediacy it had that intangible quality, a certain something that just worked.
I repeated the process with my other dinosaurs, looking again for archetypal elements that I could hang the design process on. The cones that were often used as rocket heads in Classic Space would make great triceratops horns. In a similar way, the old Technic gear rails would work as tyrannosaurus rex teeth. These new creations each became favourites on the forums alongside the stegosaurus.
With the classic dinosaurs of my childhood exhausted I thought my next build would take an iconic monster from the recently discovered dinosaur fossils. A spinosaurus! Again, I looked for the defining characteristic, in this case the use of transparent yellow bricks to suggest the stretched skin between the spines of the creature.
Now that I’ve found this new way of working, which uses anthropomorphic references to the animal kingdom in space sets, the future is full of new and original opportunities. I’m looking to move away from dinosaurs into new waters, and this time I’m taking inspiration from my daughter. As I continued to build more dinosaurs she interjected: “Daddy, why do you always build dinosaurs? Couldn’t you build a space penguin?” What a great idea! An Ice Planet emperor penguin anyone?
To see more of my space creations see my Flickr page.