He’s a master builder with Lego: ‘Block by Block’ on display in Seattle

Staff writerJanuary 27, 2014 

The next time you’re about to tell your child to grow up after you’ve stepped on yet another wayward Lego block, you might want to consider the story of Dan Parker.

One might think the 52-year-old Puyallup native never quite grew up. After all, he plays with Lego building blocks all day long.

But then he’s paid tens of thousands of dollars to do so.

Parker is an in-demand Lego artist. He creates large and complex constructions for private and corporate clients — and sometimes just for himself.

A show featuring 10 of his structures opened Saturday at the Experience Music Project Museum in Seattle. The iconic buildings, using 200,000 Lego bricks, make up “Block By Block: Inventing Amazing Architecture.”

Organized by the Norton Museum of Art in Florida, the traveling show’s edifices include the Chrysler Building, Hearst Tower, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Taipei 101 in Taiwan and the Space Needle. “Block by Block” also includes an area where visitors can create their own architecture.

While most Lego builders stick to one format — miniature, mosaic, mechanical, sculptural — Parker spans them all.

The News Tribune interviewed Parker inside his Freighthouse Square workshop in Tacoma.

Q: What’s the reaction when you’re at a cocktail party and tell someone what you do for a living?

A: After they’ve picked their jaw up, they say, “No …” Then I give them my business card with the yellow, red and blue Lego bricks on it.

Q: Did your parents know early on that you weren’t quite normal?

A: Yes, they did. You know the kids who get in to music or sports? I wasn’t either one of those. I was the tinkerer, the builder, the sit-in-my-room kid who built with TinkerToys, Lincoln Logs, Erector set or Lego. If I didn’t have that, I was building houses out of cards or using my brother’s football cards – much to his chagrin. I would get my hands on my dad’s plumbing parts or lumber. I just loved building things. It was the mechanical aptitude, the love of conceptualizing and then building.

Q: Have you been a life-long Lego builder?

A: No. I quit playing Lego at the age of 10. I got back into it 20 years later when I turned 30. In between, it was the crazier teenage projects that led to carpentry, cars, mechanics, building furniture. I customized a minipickup and rebuilt a motorcycle. Then I went into the Army and worked on helicopters. There were some outlandish projects in the military on the side. My sergeant looked the other way.

Q: Can you disclose those now?

A: Let’s just say there were a lot of water balloon fights out on Puget Sound, launched from small Army watercraft.

Q: How did you get back into Lego?

A: The Lego sets were quite a lot more sophisticated when I got back into it. I was in engineering school. I was looking for a serious hobby. Whatever I choose I was going to take it to the infinite limit. So when I got into Lego, the choice was already made. There was no turning back. It became full time within a couple of years.

Q: You haven’t lost your passion for Lego in the last 20-plus years?

A: No. Tomorrow I will find one more thing engaging about this that I didn’t know today. I enjoy it every day as a hobby even though for me it’s a commercial thing. The fact you are taking Lego — which kids are using at home — and you are now moving this Lego up and putting it in a commercial light. The challenges that presents are on multiple levels. It’s the creativity.

Q: Do you find a tactile pleasure of snapping the blocks together?

A: Not really. After you’ve done it for so long that particular sensation has gone away. It’s the execution of the work and putting it in somebody’s hands that I enjoy.

Q: You work in all formats. Do you work in all themes?

A: Yes. Castles, space, pop culture, cities, comics. I’ve got to span a landscape that is 1,000 times what the average builder works with.

Q: What’s your favorite?

A: When miniatures and mechanics are used together. Say, a miniature world with trains running through it and the bridges work. We had to do a city for FAO Schwarz and I had to put a Lego helicopter on the roof of a Lego building. I had to run a powertrain up through the building and into the helicopter. When the helicopter was sitting on the top of the building, the propellers were turning.

Q: Break down your commercial business.

A: One-third of my business is commissions. One-third are shows and events. And one-third is children and adult education.

Q: Tell me about the commissions:

A: We get these requests from companies to make industrial art pieces: tractors, motors, compressors, PR kits. We might have to put something together that’s a scale model of something. Last year we made a model of a Culligan treatment trailer at a trade show.

Q: Your business can be lucrative then?

A: I’ve been paid by some of the wealthiest families in Washington state to sit down with their 3-year-olds at birthday parties. On the other hand, I’ve volunteered my time with institutionalized kids.

Q: What are the challenges of commission work?

A: Lead time, parts availability, cost, sustainability, transit and logistics, how the customer will use it, how the customer’s audience will use it and can we do it in an environment where I might have 10 builders assisting me.

Q: How accurate are the buildings in “Block by Block?”

A: They are artistic impressions. I’ve spent enough time working as a craftsman. I wanted to change paths and work as an artist. I’ve done enough of the replica (work) in Lego. We wanted to capture the feeling it evokes. Almost as an impressionistic painter would.

Q: Who are the “we?”

A: I have six people who work on and off with me.

Q: Are all the buildings in the show at the same scale?

A: No. And that’s because there’s a disparity in height (in reality.) The smallest is the Flatiron in New York. It’s a short building. The tallest, the Burj Khalifa, is the tallest in the world.

Q: How big are they in the show?

A: The Space Needle is the smallest at 42 inches. One World Trade Center is the tallest at 9 feet.

Q: Nine feet tall? Did you glue the blocks together?

A: No. It adds to the element of risk. There can be a major disaster. There was a minor disaster. A few of the columns (of the Flatiron Building) were poked in at its last stop. One World Trade Center is 9 feet tall but it has a footprint of 11 (square) inches. From a physics point of view that’s very precarious. I’m thankful for a background of engineering.

Q: Have you had any major disasters?

A: A few years ago we had to make a life-size nativity scene for a client: Mary, Joseph, animals, 10-foot palm tree, a very special little boy in a box. And we got it to the client’s site and two of the models exploded. It had to be rebuilt.

Q: What’s the most unusual thing you’ve made out of Lego?

A: We built a casket for a client — a young man with cancer. That was his wish. He loved football, race cars and Lego. We had to do this in three weeks. The challenge was that it had to undergo the rigors of being transported from here to the funeral home to being occupied and then to the ceremony and being lowered into the grave. We had to use special building and adhesive techniques. We decorated it with race cars and the young man’s name. It was a Herculean effort.

Q: How was it received?

A: The funeral home said we did an extremely professional job and the family was overjoyed. It added some small measure of comfort.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541


What: “Block by Block: Inventing Amazing Architecture.”

When: Through April 20.

Where: Experience Music Project Museum, 325 Fifth Ave. N. at Seattle Center, Seattle.

Tickets: $20 adult, $17 seniors and students, $14 military and youth, under 4 free. Discounts for online ticket purchases.

Information: empmuseum.org