City Blocks into LEGO Blocks
Sean Kenney began building LEGO creations at the age of four, and has since become one of the world’s foremost LEGO builders. He is perhaps best known for “The Brick Apple,” a 50,000-piece scale model of Greenwich Village, complete with cabbies, bagel carts and harried pedestrians. Sean recently became the first person in the world ever to be authorized by the LEGO company as a business affiliate. He spoke with Topic’s Jonathan Sherman-Presser.
TOPIC: It seems like most kids these days are building the pirate- and outer space-themed LEGO kits, while you've devoted yourself to replicating real-life buildings and cities. Why?
Sean: People build models based on what fascinates them. A kid will watch "The Matrix" and then pull out the LEGO pieces to build a hovercraft; I'll walk along 7th Avenue in Manhattan and go model a cool high-rise. In fact, I was in Madrid a few weeks ago having lunch in a beautiful Spanish plaza, and out of nowhere I got an urge to build the entire plaza! I spent about 20 minutes photographing every building, tree, you name it. The local Spaniards were looking at me like I was crazy—"Some American took a picture of my garbage can!"
TOPIC: At what scale do you build landmarks like that?
Sean: Well, it really depends on how large a model I plan on building. A famous landmark like the Chrysler Building or Empire State Building can be easily recognized no matter how abstracted the model may be. I've built them as small as 1:2500 scale—only a few inches tall. But for structures with more ornate facades or more subtle curves and details, I need to build a model much larger before it begins to resemble something so specific. Generally 1:40 scale (the scale of the little LEGO people, called mini-figures) is sufficient to render the character, clutter and detail of a specific real-life place. At 1:20 scale (the scale that the LEGO theme parks are built at), the "blocky" nature of LEGO structures begins to disappear and more fluid curves can be built.
TOPIC: What scale is your model of Greenwich Village built at?
Sean: My Greenwich Village model is 1:40 scale. When I built the Village, my challenge was to make all the buildings smaller than I was used to, but to cram in twice the detail in the process. Some buildings have signs of renovation or additions, as evident by changes of architectural style, while others still have window air conditioners, rooftop water towers and stone steps. Then there are fire hydrants, parking meters, crosswalk signs, trees, dumpsters, traffic lights, litter, you name it. And of course it's not Greenwich Village without all the people: I've got LEGO folks stepping down on the pavement against the "Don't Walk" sign waiting for a gap in traffic so they can cross, guys with bagel carts, someone running after a departing bus, window shoppers, tourists, folks tossing produce down through metal gates in the sidewalk and masses of people crossing an avenue as a taxi tries to poke its way through the crowd.
TOPIC: How long did it take to put that all together?
Sean: The whole model took over six months of on-and-off construction and nearly 50,000 pieces. The model epitomizes the average New Yorker's day, the things that are often skipped by tourists who are otherwise bound for The Empire State Building or the Bull at Bowling Green. I wanted to show the world the side of New York that New Yorkers are used to.
TOPIC: Do you have any plans to create the rest of the city?
Sean: Well, the city acts more like an inspiration than as a template. My model of Greenwich Village isn't a literal reproduction of any particular street corner, or of actual buildings. I just wanted to capture the feel of the neighborhood. But there are some parts of town that I would like to create literal reproductions of at some point. Times Square comes to mind—complete with some little LCD televisions! I also thought it would be fun to research a random street corner and build it from the exact same angle in different time periods, say, in 1930, 1970 and today. You could watch it transform from paddy wagons to Vespas to SUVs as the buildings adapt (or crumble) over time. Mulberry Street seemed like a fun place to try out something like that.
TOPIC: Have you ever considered quitting your day job and going to work for LEGO as a builder?
Sean: Well, actually, I did quit my day job. I am self-employed and build LEGO models on commission. My clients range from marketing teams to grandmothers.
TOPIC: Are there many other practicing LEGO artists?
Sean: There are now three other people in my shoes who do similar freelance work. The LEGO Company also employs about 40 to 50 "Master Builders" who work on staff full-time, designing their toys, building models for shows.
TOPIC: Do they ever hold try-outs for that kind of thing?
Sean: Only once in recent memory. In late 2003, the LEGO Company needed a new Master Builder for their California theme park, so the other Master Builders toured the country and held local building competitions.
TOPIC: Did you enter?
Sean: I actually never entered the competition. I was in the process of moving from New York to Austin for my wedding. It wasn't the best time in the world to consider moving to California. The work in the theme park is also pretty hard; models are constantly being nibbled on by squirrels, bleached by the sun or rained on. Much of the job involves repairing and replacing the existing models.
TOPIC: How many LEGO pieces do you own?
Sean: About a quarter million, although I haven't really counted each one, and they're going in and out the door pretty fast. That may sound like a lot, but without fail, whenever a new project comes along, I'll never have what I need. I worked on a model last year that required about 10,000 clear LEGO pieces, and I only had a few hundred. I was on a tight deadline, so I bought out the entire supply of clear pieces from a LEGO store in New Jersey and another in Chicago.
TOPIC: Roughly how much do you spend on this hobby each year, if you don’t mind my asking?
Sean: Well, it's not a hobby anymore, per se, it’s a business, so the money spent on LEGO elements is paid for by my clients. This past year, I spent between $20,000 and $25,000 on LEGO pieces. Back when LEGO was still just my hobby, I gave myself a $200-per-month budget. But I'm no millionaire, and bills got in the way, so I finally started limiting myself. I would dismantle old creations to build new ones, and I used as much of my collection—at the time, a mere 80,000 pieces—as I could for each major project. Limiting my budget actually helped spur my creativity. It forced me to say, "How can I build this model with what I have?" instead of, "I can build this model if I order 37 new little brown pieces.”
TOPIC: Do you have a favorite LEGO creation?
Sean: It's hard to say. Perhaps my favorite is my sculpture of Homer Simpson. From the minute I was first inspired to build him, I barely slept until the model was done.
TOPIC: How long was that?
Sean: I worked non-stop for about six days. Then, a week later, I finished him up with another day or two of work. The first day, I must have worked for twelve hours straight on his head and face. I then worked another five days on his torso, legs and arms. The whole time, I would literally work until the point of exhaustion, go to sleep, then wake up and start working again immediately. I was living in a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment at the time, so my bed was in my LEGO studio.
TOPIC: Have you ever thought about making LEGO furniture?
Sean: I started a desk chair at one point after noticing I had a surplus of black pieces, but I had to set it aside after only the first leg was done. I may be building a large desk for a client in the Dominican Republic later this year. The trick with something like furniture is being able to design a shape that will be sturdy enough to hold as much weight as a wooden structure. I even did the math to see what it would cost to live in a LEGO house. It's a few thousand times more expensive than drywall and lumber.
TOPIC: LEGO pieces are economical in a way—you can always reuse them.
Sean: That, in fact, was the driving force behind my pursuit of LEGO-building as a serious hobby and, later, a career. I used to work in technology. One day I was looking at a dusty old computer part lying on my desk. It had cost $300 when I bought it two years prior, but was now literally worthless. It occurred to me that $300 could buy a giant pile of LEGO kits, which would still be just as good when my kids or grandkids wanted to play with them.
TOPIC: Do you think you’ll ever grow tired of LEGO?
Sean: I just chuckle at the age recommendations printed on the LEGO boxes as I tear them open. I remember when I was very little, I took fear when I heard the Toys "R" Us jingle, "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid," because it made me realize that some day I'd grow up and never like toys. Fortunately for me, it never happened.
Topic web correspondent Jonathan Sherman-Presser lives in New Haven, CT, and trolls the world for Topic in search of people whose lives he can emulate.