The Danish sheepherder who carved wooden toys

Ole Kirk Christiansen (Vejle, Billund, April 7, 1891 – Ribe, March 11, 1958)

In the company album of the Lego company there is a strange snapshot showing the desolate bogs of the Danish Jutland. In the foreground, five men are busy cutting peat.

The youngest, at the back, cuts the sods, three others pry them loose, and the fifth, at the front, leaning on one knee, makes the piles. It's war, the Germans have occupied Denmark.

There is no fuel available for private individuals and the population is forced to meet its energy needs with peat. The man kneeling is Ole Kirk Christiansen, the founder of the Lego toy factory, one of the largest in the world. In 1942, Ole Kirk is fifty years old.

His life has been one of poverty and disaster, and new calamity is yet to come.

The area around Billund, in the heart of Jutland, with its marshes, peat bogs and heaths, has hardly anything to offer people. Smallholder farmers and tenant farmers fight for their daily existence. Ole Kirk has been tending sheep on the moor since he was six. To pass the time as a shepherd, he cuts sticks and wooden things with his pocket knife. He clearly has a talent for this and from the age of twelve he can be apprenticed to an older brother as a carpenter.

He marries in 1916 and starts working on his own account. The first large orders are coming in: the carpentry for a church and two dairies. In the winter months he makes wardrobes for the farmers, bridal chests, doors and windows that will be needed in the summer.

Money is tight.

In 1924 disaster strikes. While Ole Kirk and his wife are having an afternoon nap on a Sunday, two of the boys in the studio are playing with a torch to melt glue.

Shavings shavings catch fire and in an instant the whole house is ablaze. The family can save itself, but the house and studio burn down completely. Ole Kirk borrows whatever money he can amass and starts over.

But the global recession also hits Jutland and the economy collapses. At the end of 1931 he has to fire his last worker. Ole Kirk changes course. He makes ironing boards and from the waste he cuts miniature versions and toys.

He suffers poverty. Out of misery, he himself travels through town and country to sell his wooden ducks and cars from door to door. Few people have cash. He is often paid with food.

In 1932 his wife dies. He has four children, four boys aged 15, 13, 12 and 6 respectively. The elders have to work as helpers for local farmers. The third he gets as an apprentice in the business. In 1934 he offers a bottle of wine to anyone who can come up with a good name for the small company. He hesitates between LEGIO, which means 'many', 'many', and LEGO, composed of the first two letters of the Danish 'leg' and 'godt', in Dutch 'play' and 'good'. He chooses the second and decides that he won the bottle himself.

In 1942, shortly after the time of peat cutting, his studios burn down again. But Ole Kirk starts all over again.

His son and successor Godtfred would later say: "I am convinced that only his faith in God, which showed in everything he did, Ole Kirk Christiansen at the celebration of Lego's 25th anniversary in 1957, carried him through all the misery. helped.'

After the war, all kinds of new materials emerge from the United States. It is characteristic of the genius of Ole Kirk Christiansen – he had barely gone to school and spoke only Danish – that he saw a future in plastic so early.

As early as 1947, he bought his first machine for molding plastic moulds, including for a baby rattle.

Dating from 1949 is a small tractor that the children can dismantle and put back together. That same year he produced the first plastic building blocks under the name 'Automatic Binding Bricks': one with four studs and one with eight.

They only catch on when a department store in Copenhagen places a large order. In 1956 Ole Kirk opens a branch in Germany. He dies two years later. The poverty-stricken Danish shepherd had paved the way for the global conquest of Lego bricks.