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We Build the World with Imagination
Reviewing Jens Andersen’s ‘The LEGO Story’ and John W. Kropf’s ‘Color Capital of the World’
Familiarity leads less to contempt than oversight and underappreciation. Business represents one of those ubiquitious marvels we tend to miss. It might sound a little odd to say. People, after all, talk about business all the time: what they do, how they do it, why they do it, who they do it for, and so on. Entire sectors of the media are given to covering its every development. And all eyes spring to problems that might affect the wider economy. But that’s not what I mean.
I find the very fact of business a small miracle. That people can self-organize to meet their needs with little to no outside direction is noteworthy all by itself, but here’s what’s amazing: It only takes an idea to get the whole thing moving.
Sometimes the idea is commonplace. Other times it’s novel. Either way, it conjures into reality something that didn’t exist before its conception but which when cultivated effectively can grow into an entire company of people voluntarily working together to produce something of value for the world.
When I was a little kid, an older cousin (also named Joel) gave me a large cardboard box of LEGO bricks. This was long before all the branded sets and specialized pieces. There were a couple minifigures, but standard blocks of various sizes filled most of the box. Despite the limitations, I could make pretty much anything. And that’s more or less what Ole Kirk Christiansen had in mind when he developed the LEGO brick in 1949, starting with an idea taken from a British toymaker.
Author Jens Andersen relates the history in The LEGO Story: How a Little Toy Sparked the World’s Imagination. Originally a carpenter working in the little town of Billund, Denmark, Christiansen realized the limits of his trade as the economy struggled in the early 1930s. Starting with yoyos, he began making toys in the hopes of finding new business. “You’ve got to pray a lot, pray you get the orders in, pray you get the goods made, and pray you get the money,” he later said of those years.
It was touch and go, and he survived on loans, staying just inches ahead of his creditors. Most devastating of all, his wife died then, leaving him with four boys to raise on his own. What kept him going? An idea. “I was sitting there one night brooding on all the setbacks I’d been through,” he said.
It felt as though help was so far away that it could never reach me in time. And then something wonderful happened, something I will never forget. As though in a vision, I saw a large factory where busy people were bustling in and out, where raw materials were brought in and finished goods dispatched. The image was so clear that I never again doubted I would one day reach my goal: it was the factory that today is a reality. It’s funny how you can gain faith and confidence in the middle of something so hopeless. I’m certain that it’s God who gives us visions like that.
The journey from those rocky beginnings to the present global dominance of the LEGO brand forms a fascinating story, enjoyably told by Andersen and based on company archives and interviews with Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Ole Kirk’s grandson and the last in the line of family CEOs overseeing the company.
It’s a remarkable tale of grit and ingenuity, determination and innovation. The very decision to shift from wooden toys to plastics was financially precarious. But Ole Kirk considered the potential upside worth the risk. Wood required so many steps to prepare: curing, cutting, carving, assembly, painting, and more. Plus, the organic material presented limitations that plastics could easily outstrip.
The company’s first plastic toy breakthrough was a tractor, which sold 75,000 units in 1952. By then, the bricks for which LEGO was later famous had been moving modest numbers, but they weren’t the star of the show. In fact, Ole Kirk’s son, the next leader of the business, Godtfred, was convinced that wooden toys still had a major future.
Regardless of the materials, however, the product lines had grown out of control. LEGO produced 256 different wood and plastic toys. As Godtfred took over management of the business, he realized he needed to rein it in. But how? “LEGO needed to concentrate on a single idea,” said Andersen, recounting Godtfred’s thought process. “They had to coalesce around one product that was unique and lasting, that could be developed into a wider range of toys that were easy to play with, easy to produce, and easy to sell.”
Godtfred didn’t even like the bricks. But with an eye toward pedagogical developments that emphasized children’s creativity and agency, he realized the bricks were the only toy in the lineup that fit the bill. He reconceived the bricks as part of a larger “LEGO System in Play” and began developing new ways for kids to imagine large-scale, interconnected building projects. It was a success, and it allowed expansion across Europe and the U.S. Like his father, Godtfred knew the power of an idea.
Today “between eighty and ninety million children around the globe are given a box of LEGO” each year, says Andersen, “while up to ten million adults buy sets for themselves.” There was nothing inevitable about this success. As Andersen documents, the company weathered continued and sometimes staggering setbacks as the business scaled.
Vision is never enough, but with the influx of new ideas, technical knack, and managerial skill, LEGO continues to thrive a century after its founding.
Another story of business innovation and imagination hit my mailbox around the same time I was reading The LEGO Story: John W. Kropf’s Color Capital of the World. As Kropf was growing up in 1960s Sandusky, Ohio, he always had plenty of crayons. Generations before, his family had started what became the American Crayon Company there in town. Through mergers and acquisitions they’d grown to become a significant national supplier of school and artist supplies.
The whole operation started in a kitchen. A century before Kropf was born, Sandusky students—like students all over the country—wrote on blackboards using unrefined bits of white Dover chalk. It screeched across the surface and sometimes left scratch marks. Marcellus Cowdery, the superintendent of Sandusky schools, encouraged his brother-in-law, William Curtis, to improve the technology.
Curtis needed an idea. Another brother-in-law, John, pointed him toward gypsum, which he combined with the chalk on the kitchen stove and dried in molds in his oven for a smoother writing experience. That was 1865, right after the Civil War. By 1869, they’d built a factory in their root cellar. Curtis was successfully experimenting with pigments, creating both white and colored chalks. By 1885, the company employed forty employees and mostly sold its wares to schools and railroads, where water-resistant black crayons were needed.
In 1889 the company acquired two competitors and began selling stock in the new, combined company: The American Crayon Company. After a fire consumed their Sandusky factory in 1901, they rebuilt a state-of-the-art facility that spread over 5 acres—500,000 square feet.
Competition was heated. Binney & Smith introduced their Crayola brand in 1903, and the Standard Crayon Company edged further into the school market by cutting prices. American Crayon Company continued to grow through innovation—e.g., creating a durable, new, waxless crayon with richer color—and opportunistic acquisition. At the start of World War I, the company purchased Prang, whose founder Louis Prang had developed the Artists Color Wheel, still in use today.
Through its presence in schools, industry, and beyond, by the middle 1950s company president Earl Curtis could justifiably say, “There is almost no field of human activity in which our products do not play a part”—all the result of one idea leading to another, and people responding by asking for more.
When Kropf was little, he imagined he’d go to work at the crayon factory. What kid wouldn’t? Later in life, however, he made a different decision, opting to practice law. It proved a good choice. Ultimately, the colors faded. American Crayon eventually offshored production to both Canada and Mexico and finally closed its doors in 2002.
In its various forms the American Crayon Company lasted 137 years, most of those operating in a factory in Sandusky, Ohio. Kropf reflects,
The colorful crayons and paints were the tools for millions of imaginations. Dover white chalk conveyed the newness of an idea, whether it was presented by nervous elementary school students or Nobel Prize-winning professors. All that creativity and thinking got its start in the factory. How many teachers in one-room schoolhouses or professors at Ivy League universities had mapped out their lessons using American Crayon chalk? How many millions of children drew pictures of sunsets with Prang watercolors and had their work pinned up by proud parents on the family refrigerator? How many art students went on to create their work from using American Crayon tempera paints? How many houses were built using carpenters’ chalk, or clothes designed by fashion workers using tailor’s chalk? How many first drafts of great literature (and not so great) were written with Sandusky-made pencils? They were instruments of everyday creativity.
Quite a legacy. Ideas that became the very stuff of new ideas.
“The creativity that flowed from the fingertips of the teachers, artists, and writers through products of the factory was incalculable,” says Kropf. But, as he notes, “In America, permanence is the exception.” And nothing is so fragile as an idea. Still, that’s what the world is made of.
And that’s what business is for. We build the world with our imaginations, and those imaginations have been sculpted and schooled by writing, drawing, coloring, and, of course, building with bricks—none of which we produced on our own, like most everything else we use and enjoy while we think up whatever’s next.
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