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Front page of the Wall St Journal     ‹ Back to portfolio
Photo of Front page of the Wall St Journal
August 17, 2012
The Wall Street Journal ran a great article on LEGO Certified Professionals, Adult Fans, and The LEGO Company in general. I was featured prominently in the article, which was printed right on the front page.

You can read the article online for a limited time.



I wonder if they knew I'd already created a sculpture of The Wall Street Journal?


Highlights from The Wall Street Journal article

One Adult Fan [Sean Kenney] Left a Six-Figure Job to Build Models; the $20,000 Apartment

"I meet a lot of really jealous kids who want my job," says Certified Professional Sean Kenney, a New Yorker who left a technology job at Lehman Brothers in 2002 to build Lego models full time. "Their parents are often really jealous, too." [...]

Lego Group anointed him a Lego Certified Professional. It's an elite group consisting of two New York artists, an Australian computer specialist and just 10 others world-wide. [...]

As of now, the 13 LCPs, who act as goodwill ambassadors, aren't paid by Lego but must adhere to its strict decency standards, such as no weapons. In return, they get to buy bricks wholesale. [...]

Lego began seeking adult advice through representatives it called "Lego Ambassadors." Today it has 70 of them. Around the same time, Lego began naming Certified Professionals. [...]

Mr. Kenney in New York was one of the first. "I left a nice six-figure job and all I wanted to do was go build a model with Lego," he recalls. Today, he makes at least as much money from adult clients including Marriott International, which this year commissioned models of several hotels.



From The Wall Street Journal

For Some Grown-Ups, Playing With Legos Is a Serious Business
One Adult Fan Left a Six-Figure Job to Build Models; the $20,000 Apartment

By DANIEL MICHAELS


HOBOKEN, Belgium—Dirk Denoyelle got his first Lego set when he was 7 years old. Today, he has nearly three million pieces. In between, he earned an engineering degree, learned several languages and became a stand-up comedian.

Mr. Denoyelle is a proud Adult Fan of Lego, or AFOL, as aficionados call themselves.

"Ten years ago, nobody admitted it," said the 47-year-old Belgian, sitting in his studio next to a giant Lego model of an apartment complex that a developer here paid him about $20,000 to create. Nearby are life-size Lego busts of Charlie Chaplin and Michael Jackson and a vast Lego mosaic depicting a homeless man on a London street.

The artistry of the works—and their fat selling prices—earned Mr. Denoyelle a prized spot among AFOLs. Three years ago, Lego Group anointed him a Lego Certified Professional. It's an elite group consisting of two New York artists, an Australian computer specialist and just 10 others world-wide.


Dirk Denoyelle is one of 13 Lego Certified Professionals in the world and he sells his creations for thousands of dollars. WSJ's Daniel Michaels reports from Hoboken, Belgium.

"I meet a lot of really jealous kids who want my job," says Certified Professional Sean Kenney, a New Yorker who left a technology job at Lehman Brothers in 2002 to build Lego models full time. "Their parents are often really jealous, too."

Parents—including some famous ones like David Beckham—and some childless adults today brag about the complex Lego models they are building. Grown-ups forked over more than $1,000 for a recent 5,922-piece Lego Taj Mahal and equally big bucks for rare vintage kits. Lego is catering to the booming market with offerings that make youngsters yawn, like bricks in subtle pastel hues and models of Frank Lloyd Wright houses.

But grown-ups also flood the company with more product feedback than it can handle and produce Lego-size guns that the company itself won't make. Lego survived the rise of video games and its own brush with bankruptcy. Adults present a new hurdle.

"We still see ourselves as a toy company, but the world is challenging us on that," says Tormod Askildsen, a senior director at Lego headquarters in Billund, Denmark.


Lego is in contact with about 90 fan groups boasting roughly 70,000 members throughout the world, says Mr. Askildsen. Many of them are adults with strong opinions.

In Japan, Lego has tested a Web site called Cuusoo that lets users post their own models and vote on which they would like to see the company market. It drew an overwhelmingly adult response. A global version recently went live and now Lego "would like to try to reach a younger audience," says project manager David Gram.

Some adults are so obsessed with projects at home that "it can tax a relationship," says Jamie Berard, a Lego senior designer. The company also has had reports of family feuds arising because parents' sets are better than their kids'. "We hear conversations about, 'This is Daddy's Lego,' " Mr. Berard says.

Adults increasingly use Lego in business for graphics, modeling and education. So many professionals use Lego that the company is rethinking its Certified Professionals program, which began in 2005, to make it seem less elitist, says Lego spokesman Andrew Arnold. As of now, the 13 LCPs, who act as goodwill ambassadors, aren't paid by Lego but must adhere to its strict decency standards, such as no weapons. In return, they get to buy bricks wholesale.

Lego blocks first appeared in 1958, after Danish wooden-toy maker Ole Kirk Christiansen began experimenting with plastics. Kids loved them. For years, Lego packages showed happy children, even Mr. Christiansen's grandson.

An early sign of maturing came in 1995, when an adult fan modified sophisticated design software to create a virtual-Lego program, LDraw. In 1998, Lego introduced Mindstorms, a line of robot-building kits with motors, sensors and small programmable computers. It was aimed at kids under 13, but more than half its buyers were over 20, says Mr. Askildsen.

Then Lego learned that adults were hacking Mindstorms software to soup up robots. "We asked internally, do we sue them or embrace it?" says Mr. Arnold. Lego embraced it.

Five years later, Lego almost went bankrupt because it dumbed down kits by using big, preformed pieces that sapped creativity and alienated users, officials say. Lego managers admit they belatedly learned a lesson of childhood: Grownups often know what they're talking about.


"Fans tried to tell us we were on the wrong track, but we said, These are adults and we're a toy company," recalls Mr. Askildsen. "Until then, Lego was a pretty closed, arrogant company."

Another valuable realization was that adults have bigger piggie banks than kids do. "I would struggle to find occasions where a child could get a $500 Millennium Falcon" from Lego's Star Wars series, says Mr. Berard. Family-owned Lego Group last year posted a net profit of 3.7 billion Danish kroner ($670 million) on revenue of 16.0 billion kroner, compared to a loss of 1.1 billion kroner on revenue of 8.4 billion kroner in 2003.

Lego began seeking adult advice through representatives it called "Lego Ambassadors." Today it has 70 of them. Around the same time, Lego began naming Certified Professionals.

Mr. Kenney in New York was one of the first. "I left a nice six-figure job and all I wanted to do was go build a model with Lego," he recalls. Today, he makes at least as much money from adult clients including Marriott International, which this year commissioned models of several hotels.

Adult fans are also a boon for Nathan Sawaya, another Certified Professional from New York, who practiced corporate law until 2004 and now has exhibits in art museums. His creations are chic gifts for celebrities and "the person who has everything," he says.

Even in Old Europe, Lego is graying. Mr. Denoyelle, the Belgian comedian, who uses a Lego sculpture in one routine, says that an adult fan recently approached him after a show to talk bricks.

"It's getting much easier to admit," he says.


 


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