In his 2013 book, Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry, David Robertson outlines the early successes and failures of the Denmark-based LEGO Group — from their early experiments with plastic, to their decision in the late 1990s to finally strike licensing deals with movies and characters, starting with Star Wars.

Robertson describes a pivotal moment in the company’s history, when Godtfred Kirk Christiansen, the son of founder Ole Kirk Christiansen, met up with a toy buyer:

The notion of a LEGO system of play came to Godtfred during a January 1954 trip to the London Toy Fair. Ole Kirk’s health was declining, and Godtfred began to oversee more of the company’s day-to-day management. On the ferry crossing the North Sea, he met up with a toy buyer from Magasin du Nord, the largest department store in Copenhagen. The buyer lamented that instead of delivering the one-off products that so dominated the market, toy makers should focus on developing a cohesive system where sets of toys were interrelated. Such a system would generate repeat sales. The suggestion stuck with Godtfred. After returning home, he spent several weeks working out the attributes that might define a viable system. He eventually identified six features, which he called the company’s “Principles of Play” and issued to every LEGO employee:

1. Limited in size without setting limitations for imagination
2. Affordable
3. Simple, durable, and offer rich variations
4. For girls, for boys, fun for every age
5. A classic among toys, without the need of renewal
6. Easy to distribute.

Godtfred then reviewed the company’s portfolio of toys and decided the LEGO bricks were the most closely aligned to the six principles:

Along with a small group of skilled designers, Godtfred spent the next year organizing the LEGO Mursten sets around a single, integrated town theme. The revised sets allowed children to create the homes and buildings that had long been featured in LEGO catalogs. The sets also let kids embellish the streetscapes— and thereby discover additional play potential— through a new array of vehicles, trees, bushes, and street signs. The great virtue of the LEGO System was its elasticity. That is, a parent could purchase a kit and then, at the kids’ behest, accessorize it with any number of additional sets. Indeed, LEGO even came out with supplementary “parts packs” for just that purpose. Consisting of just one or two specialized pieces and fewer than fifty bricks, the packs were designed to be inexpensive, impulse add-ons for existing sets.

In a 1955 note to the company’s sales agents, Godtfred highlighted the philosophy that continues to animate the LEGO System: “Our idea has been to create a toy that prepares the child for life, appealing to its imagination and developing the creative urge and joy of creation that are the driving force in every human being.”

Despite Godtfred’s lofty ambition for the set, the LEGO System i Leg (System of Play) was launched at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in February 1955 to decidedly mixed reviews. Commented one buyer: “The product has nothing at all to offer the German toy market.”

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