This isn’t child’s play anymore
Outside a villa in Mirdiff, two large Lego figures stand above the doorway, welcoming visitors. This is the unmistakable Gerard household – one that is overflowing with laughter and Lego.
Philippe Gerard counts himself among the Adult Fans of Lego (Afol) – an international community devoted to collecting and building elaborate Lego structures.
Next month, the Frenchman will be among about 25 Afols showcasing their work at Stack Dubai – a Lego bonanza, with 35 zones and 22 tonnes of Lego.
“I’m taking five major sets to Stack,” says Mr Gerard. “The Sydney Opera House, the Taj Mahal, a carousel with the horse, the British Tower Bridge and I’m taking an Eiffel Tower, too, because it’s a really nice piece and really hard to build.”
Despite his meticulous dedication and creative flair, he is reluctant to call his structures either work, or art. However, the 5,300-brick Lego Millennium Falcon on the lower shelf of his living room coffee table belies his humility.
“It took a long time,” he nods towards the Star Wars space craft, “because it’s not the original version from Lego – it’s a version I modified.
“I collected the bricks, not one by one, but in smaller amounts, so it took me maybe two to three months to collect everything – building and collecting, building and collecting.”
Crafting Han Solo’s ship required an intricate balance of following instructions and creative licence.
“I changed a lot of the colours and shapes of the parts, to adapt it to my feel,” he says. “The original set is more light-grey, but I prefer a more dark grey-look; more dirty, more what it is really like. More of a piece of rubbish,” he says with a laugh, alluding to the ship’s reputation within the Star Wars universe.
Contrasting this is a pristine, white Taj Mahal, sitting majestically on another surface. Although it consists of 5,900 bricks, it took Mr Gerard five evenings to build.
Upstairs, the Eiffel Tower stands beside a large, fully operational model of a fairground. There is also a miniature city, populated with Lego characters, cars and cafeterias. “My wife also likes to arrange everything in the street,” he says.
The 55-year-old was introduced to Lego as a child, and began collecting seriously in the 1980s, with early Star Wars pieces. “Around 10 years ago, I came back to it,” he says. He never looked back.
This was around the time he moved to Dubai, where he works in aviation sector. He moved from a two-bedroom flat into the Mirdiff villa 18 months ago, which, asides from Lego, is also decorated with collections of vintage toys.
“I like the old stuff: 1980, 1975, that kind of period, and Toy Story 1, 2 and 3.”
Behind the staircase are immaculate display cases containing a set of vintage Star Wars toys, and a complete set of Indiana Jones figures from 1982.
It took 10 years to collect the full set, complete in box and graded, complete with UV protective screens.
“I’m not playing with them. It’s the opposite to Lego.” With classic toys, as soon as the box is opened, the value depreciates “monstrously”, he explained.
Two of his Indiana Jones figures cost US$1,500 (Dh5,500) each, while another, now worth $600, originally cost $2.97. “Better than gold, eh?” he cracks a knowing smile.
This is just a small part of his collection. He and his wife also have a home in Manila, which he says is “kind of a museum”.
Mr Gerard has collected toys since he was a child. He used to travel across France with friends, scouring flea markets, garage sales, warehouses and independent shops. He even went to the United States, where he traded French toys, such as Smurfs and Tin Tin, for American offerings.
“Now, with the internet, it’s too easy. It’s just a matter of the size of your credit card.”
This convenience has removed the “quest of the grail” – the excitement of the hunt. “I remember going to a small grocery and finding a treasure – an old toy this lady had for 25 years and didn’t even know.”
However, there is a flip side: the internet has greatly empowered the Lego community. Mr Gerard stays in touch with 15 collectors in the UAE, whom he jokes are “a bit crazy like me”.
“I have one friend who is more on the technical side, and Star Wars; I have a friend who is more into modular stuff, like the house I have upstairs. I have another friend, who’s more into the cities and I have a friend who makes mosaics.”
Sometimes, Mr Gerard finds designs on the internet and recreates them through trial-and-error. Other times, he buys instructions online from a master builder, who has designed something using software called Lego Detail Designer.
“You can virtually build something and it will make a list of parts.”
Even collecting parts, he says, is a breeze on the internet. While Lego does not yet ship to the UAE, a website called Bricklink allows fans to buy and sell to one another. Mr Gerard has his own store on the site, which lets users search by type, colour, size and shape.
“It’s an expensive hobby,” he admits. The Millennium Falcon, for example, is made of “very particular parts” from a Lego Star Wars set released about eight years ago, he says.
At $399, “it was not a toy you would buy your kid,” he says. “But, today, a Millennium Falcon new in a box is about $6,000.”
Similarly, the Taj Mahal cost $189 in 2008, he says. At that time, it was the largest set of Lego ever produced, and the company produced a limited quantity. Today, it goes for $5,000.
In the past, Mr Gerard sold and bought parts on dubizzle, as unless one is selling valuable parts, it is hard to justify expensive international shipping costs. However, he is also a member of Facebook groups where members share their creations and trade parts with one another.
“I don’t think money is an issue in Lego, and with the size of the collection I have, it’s better to trade. I went to Singapore a few weeks ago. I bought two really special sets and, one day, maybe I’ll trade with someone who brings something from another part of the world. It’s very friendly stuff.”
Mr Gerard is looking forward to meeting even more collectors at Stack, and hopes to help champion a UAE-based Lego User Group – whose members would be recognised as Lego ambassadors by the company itself.
The event is also a good opportunity to “get these people out of their homes”, he adds.
“Some people are ashamed to say ‘I build Lego, I’m 50-years-old, don’t tell anybody’. Some people don’t even tell their work colleagues, or only his close friends know he’s crazy about Lego. Some people are very ashamed of this. It’s not a disease.”
It is the same with collecting toys in general, he says. “I remember in France, some friends came to my house and it was a relief for them. They said ‘ah, we can do this’.
“It’s really nice. Every kid likes Lego. I don’t know any kid who says ‘oh, I don’t like Lego’. Even if the kid is really into video games, if you show him some Lego, he’ll like it.”
While most Lego toys are made for children, he says around a fifth of Lego’s sales are to adult collectors. The best way to start collecting, he says, is to buy a regular set and expand slowly.
“There’s a nice set on the market, which was just issued. It’s a Disney castle – it’s a nice piece and a large kit, with 5,000 pieces. They say it’s for people over 16, but it’s really complicated to build. It’s a long evening to build a castle.
“The key is following instructions – very carefully. The instructions are universal; there are no languages, there’s no writing. You just follow the images.”
Mr Gerard is eagerly anticipating some of the Mindstorms Lego robots next month at Stack. “My dream is to build the Rubik’s cube machine. It’s just amazing – it solves a Rubik’s cube in five seconds.”
However, despite whatever innovations may come about, one of the best things about Lego is its timelessness, he says.
“You can take a brick from a 35-year-old Lego kit and it will connect with a new one. There’s no change; it still works. It’s unbreakable.”
Stack Dubai will be held at Skydive Dubai from October 19 to 22. Visit stackitevents.com for more details.
Updated: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM