Meet an Actual Lego Master Builder – Steve Gerling!

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Imagine being at a social gathering and someone asks you, “So, what do you do for a living?”  How cool would it be to answer, in all honesty, “I’m a Lego Master Builder.”Steve-Gerling_HeadShot-269x300

That’s what Steve Gerling gets to say. And, according to him, the looks of shock and awe he gets when he answers, never gets old. He, along with 11 other Master Builders, works out of the company’s U.S. headquarters, in Enfield, Connecticut (find a great tour of the facility here). While the designs for retail Lego sets are planned by Master Builders in the world headquarters in Denmark, the guys in the Connecticut office spend their time creating special displays that end up in stores, parks, and special events around the world.

I lucked into meeting Steve, in the Lego booth at the Toy Fair in February. He’s a tall guy, whose gray beard and serious facial expression almost led me to believe he was a top executive, keeping an eye on his subjects. A Lego representative surprised me by telling me he was one of the sacred few builders, and as soon as I asked him that one magical question, “What’s it like to build for Lego?”, his infectious personality bubbled out.

His path to Lego was not traditional, but then again, there is no standard story for how you become a Master Builder. Some come from careers as illustrators or painters. Others were sculptors and woodworkers. They even have some former scientists and clowns on the roster. The common theme for a good builder though, is an ability to see endless possibilities when they look at a simple Lego brick. All are creative people, who naturally think outside the box, and love finding new ways to use Lego bricks.

Steve himself is an artist, who carves sculptures out of wood. When the income from his work wasn’t consistent enough to pay the bills, he applied for a job at the Lego company. Because of his experience with wood, they started him out in the warehouse, making pallets and boxes to ship the models.  But once his portfolio of wood sculptures got into the hands of the director of the model shop, Steve found himself in the job he holds today, building sculptures out of bricks, instead of wood.

One ironic part of Steve’s story is that he didn’t play with Legos when he was a child. They didn’t become available in this country until his younger brother came along. By then Steve felt like he was too old and way too cool to be bothered with building things out of Legos. Now he’s pretty confident he’s not too old to spend some quality time creating, and his job actually makes him even more cool. In fact, he’s earned himself huge points with his extended family. Even though he doesn’t get his Legos for free, he can always be counted on to buy them for his nephews and nieces, and proudly carries the name “Uncle Lego”.

Contrary to my comment in a previous post, relating to the fact that all the Master Builders are men, historically there have been several women builders. In fact, the job of Master Builder was created by a woman, exactly 50 years ago. In 1961, Dagny Holm, the niece of one of Lego’s founders, began designing original models out of Legos and was a key player in planning the models that would appear in the first Legoland Theme Park. There were also two different women who served as heads of the modeling teams at the Enfield office, Francie Berger and Lori Catlin Garcia. With Master Builders employed in Connecticut, Denmark, the Czech Republic, and all of the Legoland theme parks (U.S., Denmark, Germany, and the U.K.), there’s no doubt more women will continue to join the ranks.

It was fun to spend time with Steve and hear his stories about life as a Master Builder. In recent weeks, since the introduction of the Lego Master Builder Academy, my son has been dreaming more and more about doing this job as a grown up. I have so many Lego fans in my family that I couldn’t help myself when I finally got to pick the brain of a real life Lego dude. In fact, I got so much interesting information out of Steve, I’m saving some for a second post. Keep an eye on the GeekMom blog for more stories, coming soon, about what his most challenging creations were and what happens to the big displays, once their time in the spotlight has ended.

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