Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus, and we petty men. Walk under his huge legs and peep about.

Julius Caesar Act 1 Scene 2

Jens Nygaard Knudsen – A Hero of our Time!

The Danish designer Jens Nygaard Knudsen was perhaps unknown beyond Lego aficionados, yet he is the man responsible for the creation of Lego’s most iconic design. With its yellow head and movable arms and legs, the Lego minifigure was first launched in 1978. Prior to this, Lego houses and vehicles were empty constructs devoid of all humanity. Deserted streets and empty shops must have rendered these creations as unsettling as one of W. G. Sebald’s novels. Since 1978, Lego has produced no less than 7.6 billion of these figures and they have starred in a movie franchise that has grossed over one billion dollars worldwide.

I am a Lego fanatic and I have one such Lego figure sitting on my desk as I type right now. When engaged on lengthy phone calls, I find it difficult to stop taking him apart and reassembling his various parts. He is my fidget spinner and stress squeeze ball made manifest in human form. I am someone who struggles to sit still without a paperclip, Blue Tack or something to mould into shapes or destroy. My desk is littered with the remnants of my unfortunate habits in this regard. However, Lego satisfies much more than my desire to fiddle.

There is a simplicity and profound beauty to Lego products that sets it apart as a brand. The sleek and smooth bricks suggest a world that is calm and well ordered.It is the Danish equivalent of Apple. These building blocks urge us to be creative and they encourage us to enter a paradigm where anything is possible so long as you have the right combination of pieces.

The US patent for Knudsen’s design

Consequently, Jens Nygaard Knudsen achieved something quite extraordinary with his life and he deserves to be remembered for the incredible joy that his figures have brought to so many young people. Incidentally, there are almost exactly the same number of Lego figures as real people on our planet!

We are good at recounting the lives of ‘famous’ men and women but perhaps less adept at deciding what truly constitutes ‘significance’. From a young age, children are encouraged to engage with epic life stories and reflect upon the lessons to be learned from ‘greatness’. As a historian, I am drawn to studying the lives of figures such as Napoleon and Caesar and there are plenty of figures whose grandiose schemes and heroic escapades make for a riveting read. However, the annals of history should retain a special place for mild-mannered people who unobtrusively contribute something special to society. I would argue that Jens Nygaard Knudsen is one such man.

Matthew Ashton, vice president of design at Lego reflected that Jens was an amazing man who left behind an incredible legacy. He went on to comment:

‘He was truly an unsung hero of the toy industry. Without him, I would never have been inspired to do the things I do today, without him I would not even have my job today. His imagination was so fantastic. If we had a brainstorm it was more like a brain hurricane because he had so many ideas.’

Closer to home, Ian Parry, Housemaster of Pelican put it very succinctly stating that: ‘He moulded my childhood’.

Farewell Jens…hopefully you are now building Lego castles in the sky.