From modest beginnings in a carpenter’s shop in 1932, the LEGO Group has become one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers, selling more than 75 billion of its colorful interlocking pieces annually in 140 countries.
LEGO enthusiasts making a pilgrimage to the brick’s birthplace in Billund, Denmark, see the LEGO logo almost everywhere in the town of about 6,000 residents. They visit the LEGOLAND Resort, which features more than 50 amusement park rides and a collection of famous buildings constructed with 20 million LEGO bricks, and LEGO House, an interactive museum that owns nearly every LEGO set ever made.
But aside from the very few who purchase limited $2,000 tickets for the LEGO Inside Tour, they do not enter the LEGO Group’s Innovation House, the two-block-long building where designers create and test new LEGO themes and sets. And not even these Golden Ticket holders have complete access; that requires three ID card scans.
Bellarmine sophomore and LEGO virtuoso John Klapheke did more than just enter the LEGO equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory last fall. He spent the entire semester working fulltime there as a design intern on the Creator Expert team. Alongside designers who had created some of the sets he played with as a kid, he helped to imagine the toys of tomorrow. “It was amazing. It was a dream come true,” he says. “Everything that happened in Denmark exceeded my expectations a hundredfold. I still wake up every day and can’t believe it’s happened.”
But really, his whole life had been building to it.
Building for fun
John’s love of LEGO began at the age of 2 or 3 when his parents gave him a Duplo train set. (Duplo blocks, intended for preschoolers, are twice the size of LEGO bricks.) “I distinctly recall sitting on the living room floor while making the locomotive go much faster than it should,” he says. Graduating to LEGO bricks at age 6, he built a Star Wars TIE Fighter. “These little spaceships were really fun to construct since I could make lots of them from just a few elements. They were very ‘swooshable,’ too!”
LEGO became a standard item on John’s Christmas list. In time he moved up to complex sets with thousands of elements and thick instruction booklets. And then he ditched the instructions. “The first large-scale creation I built without using instructions was a two-story suburban house I built for the LEGO Creator Gallery back in 2014,” he recalls. “It was one of my first interactions with LEGO Community and it transformed the way I looked at LEGO as a hobby.” The Creator Gallery is a page on the official LEGO site where fans in the community can share photos of their builds and comment on others’ creations.
He now buys sets just to get certain pieces, or large quantities of a specific brick. Remarkably, his mother, Nancy Klapheke, doesn’t recall ever stepping on one of the little devils. “He was fairly neat with them,” she says. He stores his approximately 100,000 bricks in a LEGO room in their Louisville home, where the pieces are separated by color into bins that he and his father, Paul, built.
John was also starting to get recognized at LEGO conventions. “People thought he was pretty great,” Nancy Klapheke says. “He built these Indiana Jones vignettes, and people could recognize the specific scene. I could never do that in just a few bricks.”
When it came time to go to college, John built his curriculum with a LEGO internship in mind. “LEGO requires that you have ‘design’ in your major,” he said. Looking at what Bellarmine offered, he settled on a double major of Communication and Design, Arts and Technology, a secondary major that integrates the fine and applied arts with digital technology. He has added a minor in photography.
“Through design, you communicate an idea,” he says. “LEGO itself is a way of communicating an idea…you build something and it transcends all language.”
In October 2017, he found out LEGO was offering internships in Billund and sent his résumé and portfolio. The company was interested, but there wasn’t time to complete all the necessary travel paperwork for the spring semester. Would he be willing to wait until the second half of 2018?
In April 2018, he had two interviews, and after a quick trip to Houston to secure a visa, he was ready to go. Of the 23 interns selected, he was the only American. He had visited Munich and Paris in 2017 on a two-week trip through the Kentucky Institute for International Studies, “but that was having my hand held by KIIS the entire time,” he says. “This was 4 ½ months of living on your own, working 40 hours a week, getting your school work done, shopping, and navigating through this new city in a European country where no one speaks English outside of your town.”
To prepare, he took a class called Internship Prep and Success. During the internship, he maintained his status as a fulltime Bellarmine student by taking 12 hours of classes online: transcultural experience (IDC-301), Internship Section 1 (COMM-444), Internship Section 2 (DAT-444), and a photography independent study (ART-423) in which he focused on the culture of Denmark. Dr. Gabriele Bosley, executive director of Study Abroad and International Learning at Bellarmine, and Dr. Lara Needham, dean of the School of Communication, were particularly helpful during the application process, John says, although in total, “I had to align with about 15 different professors to sign off all the proper paperwork for this internship.”
After spending a week in Italy with his parents, John arrived in Billund at the beginning of August. “The internship was such a blessing,” Nancy Klapheke says. “It was almost unbelievable that he got it. He had worked so hard, and he got to be right there with the people he had dreamed about. It was almost like, ‘Is this for real?’”
Building to learn
It was for real, and it was very hands-on. “Life as a student designer in Denmark is very similar to what it was like to be a full-time designer,” John says. “They really treated me as one of them.” Coincidentally, his brick mentor had written about a creation that John had posted on LEGO’s website four years ago. “Getting to work next to him every day and have him give me advice on a daily basis was mind blowing.”
As you might guess, he can’t give many specifics about what he worked on behind the secret doors. He can say that he worked on concept models for 2021 in the Creator Expert theme, which is geared to older teens and adults.
Designers have full access to the brick stock—a room with about 30 aisles of shelving filled with boxes of LEGO elements—and the Red Zone, an area of prototype bricks that may or may not be released. “You can use them, but like any bricks in the house they don’t leave, and you have to be very careful about photographing them,” even for use within the company. He also had access to the deleted elements section in the basement, the remaining stock of elements that are no longer produced.
The office was very open—no cubicles—“so there is a lot of communication, and if you need to swoosh something around, there is room.” At briefing meetings, he’d pass his prototypes around and get feedback.
“The level of detail that was included in each project varied on what was being asked,” John says. “Sometimes I’d be working on very minimalistic or unrefined things, and other times they’d say make this look like we are going to put it on the shelves tomorrow.”
New models for existing themes like Creator Expert should fit within that genre to maintain consistency. “But what’s interesting is they do reach out to customers and say, ‘What do you think of such-and-such.’ One of the models I was asked to make like it was going on the shelf was going to be shipped to Germany to some adult fans of LEGO and they were going to ask, ‘Hey, what do you think of this if we ever made this as a set?’”
While designers approach their work with precision, the atmosphere at LEGO was very laid-back and informal, John says, with celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries and opportunities for employees to interact. Near Christmas, for instance, the company rented an entire amusement park for an evening.
As the lone American at LEGO, John asked permission to come home for Thanksgiving week. But that doesn’t mean he took a break from the bricks. While he was in Louisville, he visited the LEGO store that had just opened in Oxmoor Mall. “I was explaining what I was doing, but I’m not sure how credible I was. I was saying, ‘Oh, I work for Creator Expert in Denmark,’ and they’re like, ‘Really?’ It does seem farfetched.”
A permanent job at LEGO doesn’t seem farfetched at all now, but maybe not right away. “There are a lot of other things I want to explore, including but not limited to some web design, video production, and photography.”
He notes that his style of building has changed significantly since he returned from his internship. “I no longer build in person first. I’m building primarily in a digital program, and once I get that accomplished, I start building physically. That, for me, is the smarter way to do it. You’re not only saving money on the bricks you’d otherwise be buying and maybe not even using, you can manipulate it first. And it keeps it more organized. You don’t have to worry about losing your concept model. That’s happened to me before, even at LEGO.”
He’s also moving away from making fan models with techniques that might be considered “illegal” or “out of system,” such as having a plate at an angle. “You can’t do that at LEGO. Now that I would like to go back and work for them maybe, I think it’s smart to build things that are in system and follow those rules and don’t put those pieces under stress.”
He’d also like to design his own LEGO set. “LEGO has this service called LEGO Ideas. You as a fan can present a set, and if it gets 10,000 supporters and LEGO approves it after a very rigorous process, then they will put it into production as a limited edition. I would love to accomplish that: taking on the whole idea of designing it yourself and doing the whole process that LEGO does, but as one person. That would be a unique challenge.”
In his own words
John Klapheke’s blog about his time in Denmark: johnklapheke.weebly.com/life-in-denmark
By Carla Carlton | email@example.com
Photos by Hunter O’Brien ’18