The Economics of Lego Art
David Tracy inside Forest Lawn Museum with a globe he built with Legos. Tracy's show, "A Million and One Pieces" is on display through May.
David Tracy describes buying Lego bricks as similar to dealing with a commodities exchange, as opposed to a typical hunt for toys. "It's more like if you were to go to Chicago Board of Trade to buy however much copper you wanted to buy," says the Lego sculptor. "You would say, 'I want to buy this many pieces, what's the price today?'"
Tracy uses the classic building blocks to create furniture and sculptures. He makes lamps and coffee tables with unusual, modern designs. He has crafted a globe and a large rendition of a human head. His work is currently on display at Forest Lawn Museum in the show "A Million and One Pieces," which runs through May. The title isn't literal. There are, he says, hundreds of thousands of small, colorful bricks used to make the collection. "I might stash a little bucket underneath one of the stands to make it literal," he says with a laugh.
He has built some incredibly complicated pieces. Sometimes, though, the hardest part of the project is actually getting his hands on those bricks.
David Tracy's Lego coffee table is the centerpiece of the living room display.
Occasionally, Tracy can buy through Lego stores and the company's website. More often, though, he has to acquire pieces from third-party vendors who sell through various fan sites. One of the reasons for this is that the colors he needs aren't always in production. The prices of those bricks will rise and fall as availability and demand changes. Tracy describes this fluctuation as "volatile." He can buy bricks in a specific color at a certain price one week and see those listed for a much higher price a week later.
It takes a lot of Legos, which can cost several cents a brick, to turn these childhood toy parts into grown-up art. Tracy estimates that there are between 80,000 and 100,000 bricks in his apartment ready to be transformed into a sculpture of a woman.
"Probably nobody thinks about cost, but I do all the time," says Tracy. "If I were to build a ceramic lamp, the cost would be a minimal component and the time would be huge." Since he works with Legos, Tracy deals with the opposite issue. He points to two rows of lamps inside the museum. Each lamp is identical in size and shape. However, they are different colors and that makes a difference in production cost.
"See that dark red one on the end?" he says, pointing to a small, deep crimson lamp. "I think that was four or five times the cost of this lime green one, just because the color, for whatever reason, on that exchange that I was just describing, is really expensive right now."
Tracy has a knack for explaining the economics of Lego art, perhaps as a result of his day job. By day, the 23-year-old works for an investment bank. He builds on the weekends, sometimes with the help of friends. One of those friends has stopped by the museum with Tracy to check out the exhibition.
When Tracy was six years old, he got a bucket of Legos for Christmas. The bricks came with a few instructions. He built a windmill and a small house. After that, he chucked the instructions and kept building. There were more houses and a few skyscrapers. "I've been building more or less nonstop since then," he says.
During his freshman year at UCLA, Tracy flipped through a copy of Architectural Digest, noticing the furniture featured in the magazine. That prompted him to use Legos to design and build pieces for the home. He does commissions for private clients. Two of his lamps are now inside Warner Brothers offices. He also spent six months working for renowned Lego artist Nathan Sawaya, whose traveling exhibition "The Art of the Brick" showed at Forest Lawn Museum last year. That's how Tracy met museum director and curator Joan P. Adan. The two collaborated on this exhibition. Adan came up with the idea of doing a living room display in the middle of the gallery. She liked the juxtaposition of Tracy's modern designs with stained glass windows and other gothic elements already in place inside the room.
Tracy and I are walking around the living room display. Next to a sofa are two cardboard chairs constructed and painted by the artist. There's a coffee table made by small bricks that were pieced together to look like giant Legos. Tracy intentionally left a few large brick-sized pieces missing, allowing the table to take on a different appearance at various angles. It's a trick that he uses frequently in his work. The shapes of objects can change as the viewer moves from a head-on view to a 45-degree angle.
Another Tracy signature is in the lamp shades he creates. He makes those using clear Legos in different sizes. When lit, the shades will cast intricate, almost lacy-patterned shadows on the walls. "The pattern that the light makes, it's almost as much of an artistic statement as the piece," he says.
Tracy, who studied architecture at UCLA, uses CAD software to design his work. It cuts down on the time it takes him to figure out the dimensions of the works. What used to take him several weeks now takes about an hour.
It took 25,000 Lego bricks to build Chas.
As complex as Tracy's tables and lamps are, they aren't the most complicated pieces that he has created. The human head, named Chas after "one of the Boys Scout dads" he knew as a child, features 25,000 Legos. The exterior is comprised of the smallest blue pieces that Tracy could use to sculpt. There are more bricks inside adding structural support. It took him three weeks to build Chas. Making an eye took multiple attempts. Nearly as complicated was the globe, which Tracy says is accurate within three millimeters.
Even with a museum show and commission work, Tracy is still an up-and-comer in the Lego art world. He has been trying to make it to the ranks of Lego Certified Professionals, an elite group of artists who are recognized by the company as, according to their website, "trusted business partners." That hasn't happened yet. Tracy still considers himself a hobbyist. The often high cost of Legos and the sheer volume of bricks he needs to complete a piece contribute to the difficulty of turning this into a full-time venture. "I tried making it on my own doing this," says Tracy. "I'm still going to keep trying. Someday, who knows what will happen."
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