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LEGOs aren’t just for kids: Utahns describe what makes them so popular

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jens Hume 6, and his bother Wesley Hume, 8, check out the BrickSlopes exhibit at the South Towne Expo Center on Saturday, May 3, 2014. The event included LEGO creations from master builders across the U.S. plus a play area for kids with more than 50,000 LEGO bricks.

By kirsten stewart

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 03 2014 03:29PM
Updated May 4, 2014 11:05AM

Sandy • If you’re familiar with slopes, burps and lurps, you appreciate "clutch power," or you have a "LEGO room" in your home, you understand the power of the brick.

Even casual users have been known to spend obscene sums of money on this enduringly popular toy.

So what’s its secret? How is that LEGOs — colorful plastic bricks with the same interlocking stud sthey had when they were patented in 1958 — have stood the test of time?

"Because you can build anything," said 9-year-old Asher Hansen, one of hundreds to seek inspiration at a master builder display Saturday at Sandy’s South Towne Exposition Center.

The BrickSlopes event was sponsored by a Utah group of adult hobbyists and was in no way affiliated with the Danish toymaker.

"We’re adults who like to play with toys," said organizer Steve Poulson, an engineer. "This gives us a chance to show off our creations."

On display were pixelated portraits "painted" with tiny bricks, a life-size replica of Batman, built-to-scale scenes from popular movies, such as "The Wizard of Oz," and a 12-foot-long diorama of the Battle of Peleliu, featuring a World War II-era battleship and airplanes.

Collectors collaborated to showcase the entire "Star Wars" line, dozens of valuable sets dating back to the ’70s.

Poulson’s own magnum opus, a replica of Helm’s Deep from the movie "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," required $6,000, more than 100,000 bricks and four months to build.

"The question I always get is ‘Your wife allows this?’" he said. "She actually encourages it. It’s therapy for me and allows me to spend quality time with the kids."

For Poulson, the draw of LEGOs is their unlimited potential. At the close of the expo, he said he plans to "retire" Helm’s Deep and send it smashing to the floor.

LEGO is a corporate juggernaut, achieving double-digit sales growth last year and netting the equivalent of $5 billion U.S. dollars. New products accounted for 60 percent of total sales, suggesting the company knows its audience.

"I think it was Harry Potter that hooked me. That and playing with my grandson," said 68-year-old Barbara Rindflesch, who came to the expo with her adult daughter, Lindsey Owen, and 2-year-old grandson.

"That’s just your excuse," responded Owen, laughing. Alec doesn’t get to play with your LEGOs."

Owen has fond memories of her own childhood tinkering.

"We had this big denim bag, and I remember rummaging around saying, "OK, Dad, I’m looking for a one-by-three yellow," she recalled.

LEGOs have been used in the workplace to spur creative thinking, in behavioral studies to gauge spacial reasoning and as a therapy tool with autistic children, according to a 2012 ode to LEGO penned by Jon Sutton, managing editor of The Psychologist.

The toy is accessible to all ages, unlike more taxing construction kits in which the physical demands of piecing them together get in the way of creativity, Sutton wrote. It hones fine-motor skills and pattern development and teaches problem solving, he added.

Over the years, bricks have grown more complex, serving specific functions and designs. But the original genius remains the toy’s malleability.

"It’s their quality, durability and attention to detail, like their calculation of clutch power, the amount of force it takes to put two pieces together," said Asher Hansen’s dad, Nick Hansen, of West Jordan.

Fran Christensen, who drove with her 14-year-old son from Green River, Wyo., for Saturday’s expo, values LEGO as a happy distraction from today’s high-tech, digitized world.

"I believe in creativity and imagination, not sitting in front of the TV or video games," she said.

Of course, LEGO isn’t exactly low-tech. School-age kids from around the world compete in the robot-building competitions, First LEGO League and Junior First LEGO League. Participants often parlay learned skills into careers as architects or engineers.

But master builder Brian Pilati, a software engineer from Spanish Fork, said the best creations start simply, inspired from a single piece. "You just take that piece and think, ‘Hey, I can build this or that.’ It’s about the creativity and the challenge."

kstewart@sltrib.com

Twitter: @KStewart4Trib

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