Two weeks ago, Master Builder Stephen Gerling came to my local mall (Stoneridge Shopping Center) for the grand opening of the new Lego store. For the event, he helped children build an 8-foot Sponge Bob Lego sculpture. I got a chance to sit down with him and talk about the process and what goes into being a Master Builder. Here's what Stephen had to say during the interview:
Tell me a little bit about what a Master Builder is and how you became one.
Lego Master Builders are the people who work for the company who actually create models. We're not the ones who design the set that you buy in stores. Our job is to promote the imagination. We design and build anywhere from models that you could fit three of them in your hand to models fifteen, twenty, thirty feet long and everything in between. Our customers are usually the sales department, marketing department, public relations, brand retail, and anything when we want to get big models out into the public eye. We design and build them in our shop, primarily in our Enfield CT shop. We also have a factory that will produce large numbers of the models. There are seven of us employed by the LEGO company in the US right now as Master Builders, seven of us that are permanent. We have another six or eight that work as freelancers for us. Periodically we will use other people whose abilities we trust, whose public appearances we trust and they will occasionally go out under the blanket title as master builder.
We would be looking for three-dimensional design skills primarily. My own background is in art; specifically I have a degree in sculpture. Now we would be looking for computer skills as well in forms of computer modeling. We do a lot of our prototyping for our big models on software that the Lego company developed that allows us to take a virtually designed generic model and turn it into a virtual Lego model that can be used for a prototype. We can copy that layer by layer.
How long have you been a Master Builder?
I've been a master builder for the Lego company for a little over fifteen years now. Technically my title is Model Designer. In our shop all of us build but my primary strength is design. There are only a couple of us who do design work but all of us can build.
What tools do you use to make the actual sculptures like the Sponge Bob you're making today?
Everything is in the prototype for it. The small model that we are copying was designed and built almost entirely with one size of brick. It's very difficult to do. That's where the design work comes into play. It's much more difficult than designing something with a mix of bricks. You're forced to get a lot of detail, a lot of cool factors going with only one size limiting you because we have to tailor it to the crowd that's building it. We can do some of that computer built. The computer doesn't really understand what we're trying to do when we design a model like that. We can use our computer designing capability to do a pretty sweet model of Sponge Bob. But this is a little something different; we don't have the capability to restrict it to only one size of bricks. There's a lot more handwork and judgment that goes into the design of this. Now once that's right, then it gets copied and a glue version is done of it. We copy that into a glued version and that's what we copy for this big model (Sponge Bob). We're doing a brick for brick copy of the small prototype. There's a prototype that's about two feet tall that's built entirely out of 2 x 4 bricks. Kids are building these bricks 4 times as big and we're copying the small model exactly with larger bricks. For every place there's a 2 x 4 brick in the small model, there's a large one in the big model. So we end up with an exact replica of the small Sponge Bob only he will be eight feet tall.
Do you consider yourself an artist or a Lego artist?
Yes, I do. It's very fortunate to find a job that actually pays for your art skills.
Do you make any personal art sculptures outside of work?
I try to keep a few projects going. Just to keep it going. My actual strongest art form is relief wood carving. I did that for quite a few years before I came to Lego. It's very exacting and very time consuming. Again it makes it a little frustrating to try to do it in little bits. It's hard to get home and get everything done and at 9:30 go down to the shop and do some more creative work. I try to blitz a few projects a year. I usually will just plow into it for two or three straight weeks to knock off one or two large projects. I'm trying to get a shop/studio finished by the time I retire because I would like to get back to doing that kind of work.
Do you have a favorite Lego sculpture that you've worked on? Is there one that stands out to you?
I do have a sentimental favorite model I did. In fact, I only did it for about probably four years after I started at the company. It's a small model of an octopus. It's about two feet long and if you can envision how octopi crawl across the ocean floor, the tentacles are spiraled outward, they're twisted and turned back in on themselves and so forth. And it was sort of my ultimate this isn't square Lego anymore mode. It has always been a sentimental favorite with me.
What would you recommend to someone who wants to be a master builder?
We're looking for people who would have a good natural intuitive three-dimensional sense, that's first and foremost. But we want that honed and polished. We want people to take that a little further. We would like people who played with Lego bricks a lot. We want people who can really apply discipline to let their imagination realize in brick what they are thinking. Personally if I was looking out, I would be looking for a degree in something like Art. Computer modeling skills would be a big plus for us now. But again we push the education end of it very heavily. In our hiring now, the Lego Company is hiring the best that it can find in anything they're hiring for.
I always recommend the sketchbook as a good tool for kids. but even now with computer modeling I tend to do a lot of little pencil sketches before I even start in the computer. It's my way of jotting down ideas. I express to kids it's not a book that you're going to fill with masterpieces because you have to. It's a book you use for jotting down ideas. It's a good first step for letting your brain put down its vision in something solid even though it's two dimensional.
This post does not necessarily represent Simon Property Group's positions, strategies, or opinions.