Ole Kirk Christiansen was bornon April 7 1891 in the village ofFilskov, Denmark. He was one of 10children of Jens Niels Christiansen andKirstine (Andersen) Christiansen. Hebegan tending his familys sheep in thefields at the age of six, and to pass thetime during the long hours outside, hecarved small wooden figures. Later, hetrained under his older brother, KristianBonde Christiansen, to become acarpenter. Around 1916, he bought theBillund Woodworking and CarpentryShop, and had several profitable years asa local home builder in the village ofBillund, also in Jutland; during the slowerwinter months he made custom furniture.Along the way, he married and becamethe father to four sons.
The Great Depression did not impact Denmarks largelyagricultural economy immediately when it began in 1929, butby 1931 a flattened market brought a subsequent slowdown inChristiansens home-building and furnituremaking business.He was also a widower by that point, and to make ends meethe began crafting more practical items in his woodshop.These included stepladders, stools for milking cows, andironing boards, along with a few wooden toys that were madeprimarily from wood scraps. The yo-yos, cars, and animals hecarved out of wood proved such a hit that he came up with abrand name around 1934 for them. Taking the Danish phraseleg godt, or “play well” he called the line LEGO.
After World War II, Christiansen became intrigued by thepossibilities offered by a relatively new material, plastic. In1947, he acquired one of the first plastic injectionmoldingmachines in Denmark to make a new series of toys, such as arattle shaped like a fish. His sons, now grown and workingwith him, cautioned that the new space-age material was tooexpensive and the possibilities too limited, but they wereproven wrong over the next few years. In 1949, Christiansenintroduced the first LEGO Automatic Binding Bricks, whichin 1953 was shortened to just LEGO Bricks. When he visited atoy fair in England in 1954, one toy buyer for a retail chain toldhim there was no “system” in the world of toys, and this gaveChristiansen the idea to create a series of LEGO items thatcould be purchased separately, but used with one another.
Christiansen’s son, Godtfred KirkChristiansen, had begun working alongside hisfather in 1942. In 1950, he was named JuniorVice President of the company. It was he whoconceived of the idea of developing Legoblocks into a total “system of play.” By1953, LEGO started marketing complete plasticblock sets and in 1954, they obtained atrademark for the product, which they renamed"LEGO Mursten" or "LEGO Bricks." The company officially launched the“LEGO System of Play” in 1955, whichcomprised 28 different sets and eight toyvehicles. LEGO patented the bricks’ “stud-and-tube coupling system” in 1958. Thatyear, founder Christiansen died. His sonGodtfred immediately took the LEGO helm.
Legos continued to gainpopularity, with more themed toy setsand building-block variations added allthe time. The first LEGO sets were soldin the United States in 1961. By1966, offerings included bricks thatcould form all sorts ofbuildings, vehicles and backdrops. Alarger version of theblocks, DUPLO, was added in1967, designed for younger childrenand toddlers. In 1977, LEGO introducedTECHNIC projects for older kids andteens. Over the years the companyadded all sorts of themed Legosets, even robotic building sets brandedLEGO Mindstorms, model vehicle kitsand computer games.
LEGO opened a series of theme parks based on the Lego toyconcept, the first in Billund in 1968. Others opened in Windsor, England in1996 and in Carlsbad, California in 1999. Most recently, a fourth parkopened in 2002 in Gunzburg, Germany. The parks continue to be immenselypopular with people of all ages, especially parents and their children.
Ole’s grandson, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, later becameCEO of the company and maintained that position untilOctober 2004 when he was replaced by the company’sfirst non-family chief executive. LEGO has been apioneer in using its products to advance research inlearning and play. Initiatives include the LEGO LearningInstitute, the LEGO Educational Division, collaborationwith MIT’s Media Lab, and LEGO Serious Play, a productdesigned to help business owners to develop innovativestrategies and solutions. The company has sold Legotoys in 130 countries, with sales totaling more than $1.5billion.