At a design competition in October, Garrison Hullinger and his team had already created an entire wall of patterned blue and yellow Post-it Notes and a floor tiled with pennies, but their room was lacking that finishing touch.
So Hullinger turned to Grant Scholbrock, an award-winning Lego architect who works at Hullinger's eponymous interior design company, in Portland, Ore. Scholbrock created a large rhinoceros head made entirely out of yellow Lego bricks and mounted on a plate made of brown Lego pieces. The head was hung on the wall above the doors, looking like something out of a Bauhaus hunting lodge as imagined by a 10-year-old.
"The Lego head was definitely a standout, because everyone loves Lego," Hullinger says. Now clients are clamouring for Lego designs of their own, whether it's walls for their kids' rooms or chairs for themselves.
The children's toy has moved out of the playroom and into the world of design, where it is being used to create everything from lamps, tables and entire walls to, yes, even "taxidermy-free" animal heads. Such Lego designs stand at the apex of Gen-X nostalgia for adolescence, itself underpinned by the notion that it was never time to put away childish things. But its popularity is due to more than just the obvious sentimental factor, designers say. Those plastic bricks are sleekly modern and, when clicked together, can create shapes that evoke the work of early masters of modern architecture such as Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who, not coincidentally, Lego has honoured through its Architect series, allowing fans to build their own versions of Farnsworth House and Villa Savoye, two of the most famous buildings in the modernist canon.
And for those who just want something novel, Lego pieces offer any room that burst of bright colour that has been trending in recent years. These creations tap into the culture of hacking, in which repurposing materials is almost sure to create conversation pieces, especially when the first question is bound to be, Wait, is that made of Lego?
"There's kind of that retro thing going on, almost like a Sputnik-style lamp or Noguchi table. It's iconic and recognizable," says Sean Kenney, a New York-based artist who is a Lego Certified Professional.
Earlier this year, Kenney was hired to build a wall and staircase made entirely from 20,000 Lego bricks for a couple redesigning their apartment in New York City. He was also commissioned to create a lamp made from Lego for the HGTV show Home By Novogratz. The lamp Kenney made was so striking that he has since designed five different styles of Lego lamps made in 10 colours that were introduced for sale in October, with prices ranging from $695 to $795.
Lego shares the sort of simplicity and clean lines that are found in so much mid-century modern and Scandinavian style, Kenney says, adding that it's the same aesthetic that has made Ikea, another Scandinavian giant, so popular. "It has an instant charm to it, and it's also very clean and classy."
Thanks to its nostalgia factor, Lego can appeal just as much to kids as to their parents, which made it a perfect material to include in the design of Toronto's Smock Café, a hot spot for tots where mom and dad can relax over lattes. The café, which opened in May on Roncesvalles Avenue, features a functioning bulkhead made out of approximately 1,500 bricks.
"I thought it would be a good way to incorporate some child whimsy in the place, but I like that it has a really utilitarian, adult purpose," owner Sara Wood says. "The other option would be to make a bulkhead out of drywall, which is what people usually do, but that's boring."
Designing with Lego is not cheap, however. The company sells the mid-size 2x4 pieces (about the size of a pencil eraser) for 30 cents (U.S.) each, meaning that were you to build an object out of 10,000 such pieces, it would run you $3,000. Kenney's lamps typically feature about 2,000 pieces.
Yet, considering that piece, Lego can transform the most everyday piece of furniture into an object that will be gushed over by design blogs around the world.
In 2010, architects at abgc Architecture and Design, a firm in Ireland, created a boardroom table made out of Lego for the Dublin advertising firm Boys And Girls. The architects were told to be "playful but not juvenile" in creating the company's headquarters. The 4-by-9 foot table was made with 22,742 Lego bricks clicked together, placed on top of a stainless-steel base and covered by a piece of glass. It's since been raved about on countless blogs and design sites. (Comments typically range from "How much did it cost" to "Fantastic – please may I have one?")
A dining-room table featuring a Lego top made by Dutch-born Vancouver-based designer Joost Bakker and a Lego table made by the U.K. designer Giles Miller have also clicked throughout the design blogosphere.
So too have the Lego "taxidermy-free" kits created by David Cole, which include a deer head made of 60 pieces, a red fox and a yellow bear head, which he sells for $28.
Cole, a 26-year-old product designer at Quora, a question-and-answer-website, has been selling the kits for a little more than a year now. So far, he's sold well over a thousand of them and demand continues to be high. "We still have a waiting list that we're burning through," he says. Many people have requested full-size deer heads made of Lego, but Cole prefers the creative challenge of working in a smaller scale.
He plans on creating new kits, including architecture – a Brooklyn brownstone, a Victorian home from San Francisco – as well as anatomy, such as a heart. But those are likely months away, he said.
Cole has yet to make a full-size deer head, but one lucky person walked away with the rhino head that Hullinger and his team built. At a charity auction following the design competition, one keen bidder shelled out $400 to take it home. (Hullinger and his team took home the creativity award.)
A generation ago, his rhino head and other Lego creations might have been dismissed as childish. But now that all materials are fair game in the push to be more creative, "childish" is no longer pejorative, which has opened the possibilities of what can be done with all those brightly coloured bricks from Denmark.
"Lego is what it is, and you don't have to re-invent it, but you can now make something cool out of it. Whereas before, I don't know, I never thought we had permission to do that growing up," Hullinger says.