Magazine article The Spectator

Design Building a Future

Magazine article The Spectator

Design Building a Future

Article excerpt

One of the big differences between Frank Lloyd Wright and me is that, when he was nine, his mother gave him a set of wooden building bricks. When I was the same age, I wanted Lego for Christmas, but my own mother thought it a mere toy, a puerile gift.

So she put away childish things and I was given something more high-minded. Perhaps a boring encyclopaedia or a hated chemistry set, useful only for making obnoxious smells.

It was 1876 when Anna Wright presented her boy Frank with Froebelgaben, or 'Froebel Gifts', an educational tool devised by urpedagogue Friedrich Froebel, who also gifted us the Kindergarten idea: the belief that children's intellects can be cultivated like flowers. The 'Gifts' (which Wright referred to throughout his long and productive life) were coloured woollen balls on string and unpainted wooden cubes, cylinders and spheres. Additionally, Mrs Wright gave him samples of high-quality German art paper.

These proved to be one of the most artistically influential gifts of all time (surely even greater than this year's popular 'techie treats for tots', which include a flying fairy that eats expensive AA batteries that are hard to recycle). Sitting at the kitchen table, the future architect became engrossed in form, line and space.

He wrote in his autobiography: 'I soon became susceptible to constructive pattern evolving in everything I saw. I learned to see . . . I wanted to design.' Even as a child, Wright did not want to draw Nature. He wanted to be Nature. Of course, he became one of the greatest architects ever. Meanwhile, the Froebel building bricks continued their adventure in architecture when they became the inspiration for the famous Bauhaus logo.

Lego has educational roots too. In 1949, a Dane called Ole Kirk Christiansen stopped making wooden toys and moved into plastic. His idea was to create a system of interlocking units - he called them 'Automatic Binding Bricks' - which allowed children to explore constructive ideas.

Education should teach refinement, encourage discrimination and taste while stimulating individual creativity. This was Lego. Of course it was high-minded (at least compared with the intellectually limited and fast-selling Furby): Lego is a contraction of 'leg godt', which means 'play well' in Christiansen's native language.

Today's Lego bricks, unchanged since a redesign in 1958, are manufactured to a tolerance of one millionth of a metre. They bind together in infinite variety and with beautiful precision, yet disassemble easily. If in their precision, clarity, logic and bright colours we can see something of the achievement of Danish Design as a whole - Verner Panton's furniture, for example - then that's an added benefit for connoisseur's of miniature perfection. …

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