Some jobs are inherently cool. Near the top of the list – especially for kids and toy enthusiasts – is Lego master builder. The allure and prestige of a Lego master builder is well-warranted – there are only eight worldwide, all based out of the company’s North American headquarters in Enfield, Conn. They get to be Lego celebrities at worldwide publicity events, attend movie premieres, and bask in the adulation of Lego fans. But being a master builder also is work. “It’s not all sunshine and rainbows at Lego,” said master builder Christopher Steininger. He faces grueling deadlines to complete life-size sculptures that will be displayed at malls, flagship stores, Lego parks, and promotional events from Florida to Australia. While the retail sets are designed in Denmark, where the company is based, Steininger, 34, and his counterparts fulfill corporate requests such as creating the city of Bricksburg for the Lego movie or a 210,000-brick Death Star for a mall exhibit.
The skill set and backgrounds of the master builders are as varied as the classic interlocking blocks that they use. Steininger is a former furniture maker, a colleague was pastry chef; and another used to be an industrial designer. Steininger was once a glue minion at the bottom of the Lego design hierarchy. He worked his way up, but admits that he had an advantage – he is a second-generation master builder. His father, Dan Steininger, makes up the other half of the world’s only father-son master builder team — they even share an office. The Globe recently spoke to Christopher Steininger about life as a Lego professional.
“It’s never boring here at Lego. We have animated Lego chickens that chase each other around the office. There’s also a warehouse of retired models. It’s actually kind of creepy — they’re all covered with tarps, some with arms and legs hanging out, so it looks like some sort of horror movie. Some of these models are more than 30 years old. Making these mega-Lego pieces is akin to sculpting with clay, wood, or even stone. I start the design process with a modeling software which essentially creates a 3D mesh. From there, we refine, adding and removing bricks. I choose from an entire library of bricks, organized by color, shape and size. My desk is adjacent to the model shop, so I go back and forth from my computer to constructing. There might be two people or more building a life-size model at any given time.
“Many models, after they’re completed, are actually hollow with steel rods inside, glued together for stability. It’s very difficult to make curved surfaces out of Lego, like the enormous eight-foot-wide Star Wars Death Star. My dad and I debated extensively about how to avoid a disaster, and have it stay together. Sometimes we go head-to-head about design dilemmas. I tend to look for the path of least resistance, whereas my father often charts a very elaborate path to solve the problem. But we are so lucky to be working together at Lego. My dad didn’t have Lego growing up – he was introduced to the bricks when I was a kid. He was a well-paid salesman at the time, but when a minimum wage job opened up as a model glue trainee, he leapt at the opportunity. My dad rose through the ranks and became a master builder. It was fun for me, because a lot of Legos came home.
“In high school, I became a Lego intern, doing repetitive work that master builders don’t have time to do. My first actual full-time job here was in the warehouse, building custom wooden crates to ship out the oversized Lego creations. Things slowed down in the crate area, and I got called into the build studio. They said, ‘We know that Chris can build – let’s stick him with one of the models.’ I was a glue trainer, then a model builder, senior model builder, and eventually master model builder. Now I’m a middle-aged man getting ‘paid to play.’ It’s fun, but my wife never believes me when I say I had a tough day. It can be a long and tiring slough when we’re against the clock and the Lego is going awry. I have two kids, age 3 and 5, and they love Lego. But will they become master builders? Who knows. They need to find their own path.”