One of the most unexpected crossovers from the world of LEGO building to mainstream culture comes in the form of the vernacular expression ‘LEGO hair’. A popular insult applied to a person whose hair is overly perfect, hair-sprayed to within an inch of petrification or which displays bizarre geometric angles. Of course whilst the slang is based on a direct visual analogy, it suggests more: that to have LEGO hair is to be fastidious to the point of obsession, vain and uncompromising.
As an aspect of everyday speech this insult proved its full acceptance into our dialect when it found its way into the script of popular BBC television daytime soap opera Doctors[i]. In the aforementioned episode the prim and proper wig wearing Practice Manager Mrs Tenbee, was described as part of a character assassination as having LEGO hair; and we all knew what this meant. An overt focus on an ideal external image might betray limitations in one’s ability to adapt and cope with change.
What is perhaps most fascinating about this description, is not so much its social application, but what it indicates about our understanding of LEGO building. There is something about LEGO hair that exceeds the imperfect, bed headed, unruly hair styles we all sport. LEGO hair is unlike any real hair; in its ideal plastic pre-formed way it is seen as the archetype of hair.
This link between beauty, perfection and the expectations we all have about creating an ideal self-image, has been explored explicitly through the medium of bricks. Dutch art director Elroy Klee[ii] has created a series of immaculate LEGO wigs that resemble fashionable hairstyles, an African afro, short crop and blonde layers, using only black, red and yellow pieces. These life-sized and anatomically engineered artworks were designed to be worn by three models as part of an advertising campaign entitled Mind Play[iii].
The photographs of the three women make explicit connections between the idea and visual construction of beauty. Fashion has long propagated a fantastical vision of the beautiful via a complex aesthetic process: the art of make up, photographic filters, lighting and other camera tricks and the digital editing-out of a model’s supposed ‘imperfections’. The results being that the models we see presented on the pages of glossy magazines embody an imaginary ideal rather than any individual. By taking one part of this process, in this case hair styling, and subverting it, these images play with the preconceptions we all have with regard to the aspirations of perfection manufactured by the fashion industry. To fully control and model hair in this case means having it replaced by a brick built plastic alternative. The result: a perfect layer cut, a perfect afro and a perfect fringe cut – but all unreal. All three women look beautiful, but with a knowing nod to the archetype of beauty they have become: with this ideal literally being worn upon their heads. Less than a critique this witty visual gag engages and opens up a space to think about what it means to aspire to perfection; and how much of that aspiration is linked to a desire to create an identity rather than accept the person we are– bad hair and all?
However, when we use the phrase ‘LEGO hair’, we are unlikely to be imaging the sculptural beauty of Elroy Klee’s creations. It is far more likely that the first image that springs to mind is that of the original mini-figures’ brown or black bowl-cut hair element. This simple piece of brick design being used for several years to stand in for all the hairstyles possible in the LEGO mini-figure world, alongside its pig-tailed female equivalent. As a design exercise these LEGO elements boiled down the essential features of what makes hair, hair, creating an archetypal form in a single piece.
Interestingly the LEGO hair elements pre-date the perhaps most iconic aspect of the LEGO mini-figure, its ubiquitous smiling face. The female pigtail variant was used in the mid-70s, when LEGO produced a number of sets with figures with non-articulated torsos and blank faces. In this era the hair element not only signified an archetypal style but also a gender. To differentiate the male figures, which were often determined by their hat and role – fireman, policeman and so forth – from the female figures, the LEGO designers used the hair element to signify all women.
Given our society’s current progressive views with regard to gender equality, this reduction of femininity to something as trivial as a hairpiece seems archaic and redolent of the time that produced it, but beyond the sexist overtones there is something magnificent to be said about the essential economy of the design. If it is possible to define LEGO building as the exercise of using the imagination to create new and different creations from a limited stock of elements, then creating a single brick capable of representing one half of all people in the LEGO world bordered on genius. As an aide to both play and creative thinking, the archetypal form of the LEGO hair element opened up a multitude of opportunities.
This focus on original elements in the LEGO system defines the path that the company took in the late 70s and early 80s. As they moved away from a range of basic building blocks supplemented by a handful of specialist pieces, such as wheels and windows, they became increasingly interested in developing a universal LEGO language that would support children’s narrative play as well as their creative expression. During this period the company introduced a number of iconic elements that are now synonymous with the LEGO aesthetic. One only has to think of the LEGO cup, the LEGO wrench and the LEGO flower to start to see the direction the company was taking.
What each of these elements did, by embodying the essential qualities of the object they represented, was to create an immediate short hand that allowed access to a set of quick and easily transferable skills that a child needed to make a world. By placing a unique element such as a LEGO steering wheel on almost any other brick, the child was able to create a vehicle with a cab that a mini-figure could sit in.
The LEGO designers made use of this newfound set of possibilities speedily creating within the smaller sets sold in the pocket money ranges a collection of archetypal models. Using a tiny number of pieces, which crucially made use of these new archetypal elements, they made the very personification of a police car, a fire engine and a lunar buggy, amongst many other classic creations. Crucially the children who bought these sets with their limited stock of elements could quickly achieve similar results.
Perhaps this development helps us understand one of those false arguments that persist within the LEGO community. That today, with its almost viral propagation of specialist elements, LEGO sets have lost the creativity that these earlier toys had. Of course this argument begins from a false premise: that the increase of building options reduces building options. Patently this is untrue, with the unique and endlessly innovative use of new parts being made by builders within the community daily. Still, there is some foundation to this argument, that is tied less to a loss of creativity, and has rather more to do with the corruption these new elements have on a pure archetypal world with its limited set of defining elements.
Those who mourn the passing of the LEGO themes of the late 70s and early 80s are grieving for the end of a short-lived perfect Platonic world. Recalling Plato’s idea of the Forms[iv], which argued that all things in our world, which appear different and unique are defined by singular universal ideas, might be applied to the LEGO system of this period. If Plato sought to answer the question of universality by noting that the multitude of individual horses in the world were all defined by an archetypal idea of the Form of a horse (four legs, a mane, hooves and so on), then these specialist LEGO bricks that stood in for all people, or all doors, or all flowers, literally created a Platonic world of Forms. Fascinatingly the classic era of LEGO building might reflect the classical era of Greek philosophy.
Whilst the direct belief once afforded to Plato’s ideas has long since been challenged, modified or outright rejected, culturally its link to how we all perceive a notion of perfection remains embedded in our language and way of thinking. It is of course no surprise that a generation of children presented with a building system that beautifully represented these ideas of perfection would cling onto the sort of idealised creations and ways of looking at the world it provided. For the LEGO builder of a certain age these archetypal elements provide a wistful nostalgia for a lost Eden; a time when building meant contributing to a simple yet perfect world that relied on well-understood symbols and conventions.
As the inevitable shift in design continued within the LEGO ranges, developing ever more specialist elements, the relation between these elements as ideal Forms started to waver, and with it part of the purity of the shorthand building language that came with it. Where once a hair element was enough to identify a gender, there were now hundreds of hair elements to choose from in every conceivable colour, shape and form. Those who hankered after a lost Eden of ideal building saw a shift away from creating with ideal Forms being replaced by a process of selecting the most appropriate element.
If the diversification of hair elements revealed one problem, the creation of other pieces such as large purpose built aircraft nose cones, huge rock elements and all manner of pre-fabricated flora, exasperated the situation. The call went out, this is not the pure-building we knew; this is directed construction of a highly unimaginative type.
However the problem was not with the creation of new elements, specialised or otherwise, but with a deep-set understanding as to what essentially LEGO bricks are. For the critical voices who bemoan the diversification of pieces, the LEGO system is split in two: the bricks that are considered raw elements – plates and standard bricks, and specialist elements that have singular defined uses. As long the former outnumber the later, the specialist elements simply help support basic brick construction. However should they outnumber the former, they are perceived to determine what is to be built, with the raw elements simply supporting the ideas or Forms already established by these specialist pieces.
This is just one way of looking at LEGO bricks. The more generous approach is to understand that all LEGO elements belong intrinsically to the same system, with no artificial division used to distinguish them. As long as a brick has a capacity to be connected with other bricks it is considered part of the general economy of bricks. As such, given this rubric, a hair element is only ever considered the personification of hair as long as it is connected to a mini-figure’s head as hair. As all LEGO builders know a LEGO element always has a use that was never intended by the original designer.
A builder like Karf Oohlu[v], who I interviewed to years ago [vi], exemplifies this. As soon as new mini-figure parts are released he is busy building and experimenting with them; overturning the designer’s original idea. The hair element being a particular favourite of his for this type of subversion. This can be seen in builds such as Rage where a spikey red hair piece is used to represent the thrust on a bio-sentient spaceship and Ha Silly Billy where a similar red hair piece is used to recreate a camp fire. Another builder Takamichi Irie[vii], takes this theme even further in his minimalist animal creations, where a LEGO hair piece is repurposed as a snail’s shell.
What this way of altering an intended use for a piece reveals is something akin to the way in which philosophers have come to challenge the Platonic view of the Forms. If you take a classic critique of the certainty of truths in metaphysical Forms as presented by Nietzsche in his famous essay ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’, we find an argument that helps us better understand what the relationship between the original designed use a piece has and the multiple applied uses it can be deployed to achieve is. Nietzsche argued that Ideas are not truths but actually ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms’[viii]: that rather than presenting stable ideas, metaphysical truths were in actuality the product of creative associations. In conclusion he argued that there are no predetermined essential ideas, only the ideas humans make in an attempt to describe and understand their world. The same is true of the LEGO system of elements. There are no essential or true uses of pieces only the metaphorical use of pieces to create new models, new ideas and new archetypes.
So when we talk about building the essential, of finding something archetypal in the process of making, we are not searching for a singular or universal ideal that fits all. Whilst a LEGO hair element can stand in for all hair, the essential nature of hair is approached in a LEGO creation from a multitude of equally valid techniques, whether this be the pig tailed mini-figure of a 1970s mini-figure to the elaborate afro sculpture made by Elroy Klee.
This notion of what it means to build and discover the essential with LEGO bricks has been something that the company has kept close to its heart from the outset. An open and imaginative mind can find in even the smallest selection of pieces the right associations to create a metaphor or idea of what they believe is essential about something. This is seen writ large in the LEGO commercial 15 Bricks in which two children create rockets, submarines and unicorns from the same fifteen elements. Arguably through the constraints of piece limitation each of the children locate what facets of a rocket or a unicorn fundamentally make them what they are and locate the appropriate pieces to realise this. The same principle is found repeated again and again in the marketing approach of the company: that the joy of LEGO building is found in its providing of the tools to make simply anything from the most basic of elements, aided only by the power of imagination.
If this approach is true for children it remains equally so for the adult building community. Where often the media and fan forums celebrate the huge creations, the builds made from hundreds of thousands of pieces and the mind-boggling complex, there is equal skill displayed in those tiny creations that seek the essential in the smallest number of parts. Take for example the e11even contest[ix] in which builders were challenged to make models with exactly eleven pieces. The sheer variety of building was staggering. From Custom BRICKS’s Eiffel Tower[x] to Kaptain Kobold’s Tardis[xi] the quality of imagination rivals anything we see from the super-builders with their million-plus piece studios. Crucially they also present a way of building open to anyone who has ever bought a LEGO set no matter how small.
One of the drives that makes LEGO building such a compulsive practice undoubtedly comes from the quest to uncover the essential. These small pieces of plastic providing the tools that help us search for what is most important and archetypal about our world, from the homes we live in to the cars we drive, via nature, space exploration and anything else we can think of. Yet it isn’t a fixed project, none of us are looking for the same perfection, or even the same hairstyle to appropriate. The LEGO system of bricks is like all living languages, shot through with established conventions and apparent fixed meanings, but when any of us speak we do so with a poetic slant, we change and adapt the words to mean what we want to say, to invent and create a dialect for ourselves and our communities. In the LEGO community a hundred builders might set out to build their idea of a horse, with the result that the idea of a horse ceases to be fixed to the LEGO element of a mini-figure horse, instead proliferating through a multitude of builds a shared cultural understanding of everything that is equine – there are even examples of hair piece horses. In the LEGO community building the essential means expanding an understanding through the presentation of difference and diversity, and this principle might in itself be the essential factor behind every LEGO builders’ ambition.
[iv] See book 4 of the Republic. Plato, Republic in Plato: The Collected Dialogues ed. Hamilton and Cairns, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1961.
[vi] ‘Interview with Karf Oohlu’ in Bricks Culture Issue 3, Republic 66 Media, London 2015
[viii] Fredrich Nietzsche, ‘Truth and Lying in a Non Moral Sense’ in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings ed. Geuss and Speirs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999 p.146
This article was first published in Bricks Culture 7