Counting Down to 90 Years Of Play, Part 6: 1982-1991

Welcome back to our countdown to the LEGOLAND Group’s 90th Anniversary on the 10th of August, 2022. Every day, we are taking a look at a selection of major developments in a decade of the LEGO Group’s existence.

Yesterday, we saw the release of the minifigure, and the starting points for the Classic LEGO® Themes: Castle, Town and Space. The stage was set for developing the focus of LEGO Play, at a certain scale, going forward. The release of the Erling brick in 1980 also presented great scope for innovation in the way that LEGO building would develop in the future. Now read on as we take a look at some of the more significant developments of the 1980s

DUPLO Figures get an upgrade.

The DUPLO figure that had been released in the 1970s was given a makeover in 1983, perhaps to better reflect the people that children would encounter in their daily lives. With arms, legs and more realistic skin tones, DUPLO figures have been a little better at representing the world around us than perhaps the iconic minifigure has over the years. [Read my feature on DUPLO Figures from 2019 here.

Ride Out

In 1984, we get the first dedicated LEGO Animal mould, in the form of a horse. Available initially in Black and white, this was certainly a more detailed upgrade on the previous brick built versions from years before

Giving Technic MORE Life

LEGO Technic sets had been starting to develop a more consistent scale over the years, and in 1986, sets started to be populated with articulated figures. Interestingly, and slightly disturbingly, these figures have the same articulating ball joint as both Fabuland and Belville, resulting in some truly terrifying mashups over the years…

Changing Space

The Original Classic Space theme came to an end in 1987, to be replaced by several factions, including Futuron, as well as the introduction of the first ‘Bad Guy’ faction, in Blacktron. Included in this first wave of Futuron is the now iconic monorail.

The Monorail Transport system: Image: Brickset

LEGO Education

When Kjeld became the third generation owner of the company, he was determined to extend the brick as a learning tool. In 1980, the LEGO Institution Department was created with this specific focus in mind. The department has changed names a few times – becoming LEGO DACTA in 1989. The division works across the entire product line: DUPLO, system, Technic and more…

In the mid 1980’s, DUPLO mosaics were produced, and sold to kindergartens/ schools.

DUPLO Mosaic from the mid 1980s Source: LEGO.com/history

In 1984, the group reach out to Seymour Papert, working at the MIT Media Lab. He developed the programming language ‘LOGO’, specifically to help children understand the basics of instructional code. Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen could see that they held similar views, with regard to children learning through experimentation.

There were a number of technology based products released as a result of the partnership with MIT, including TC0 – Technic Control, which allowed children to use the LOGO language to control LEGO Models

With time, the partnership would lead to the development of LEGO Mindstorms… but that’s a story for another decade.

In 1989, the Institution department changes its name to DACTA – which is associated with the brand until the end of the century, when the less obfuscative ‘LEGO Education’ is adopted.

The Pirate Revolution

In 1989, the classic themes were supplemented by the arrival of LEGOLAND Pirates. The pirates theme did much to revolutionise the way that the classic themes developed, and brought about a number of things to significantly expand the parts fortfolio.

Brown appeared as a colour for the first time, useful for wooden barrels, planks and boards. Gold plated coins also appeared. Palm trees and animals also appear: the monkey, parrot and crocodile.

Of course, these may not be the most important features of the theme. Until now, minifigures had only featured the ‘Classic Smiley’ minifigure face. With the arrival of Pirates, we had pirates with a range of expressions, and indeed facial hair and eyepatches.

But for the first time, we also had opposing factions in the same set. And firearms: Muskets and flintlocks. The LEGO Group have a commitment to avoiding depictions of contemporary, non fantasy weapons (ray guns and flintlocks are in, AK-47’s are not).

Over the next few years, these changes would move throughout all minifigure playthemes.

Expanding Manufacturing

The 1980s also saw manufacturing move beyond Europe and the USA, with a South Korean plant opening at Kunpo in 1985, to be replaced by another at Icheon in 1996. In part driven by the need to take on a local copy brand, KoKo, as well as bring manufacture and distribution closer to the developing Asian markets.

The Icheon factory took on the entire South Korean operation, but closed in 2005, as part of the austerity measures at that time.

A Brazilian factory was opened in 1986, in Manaus. This is another part of the world where copy brands are already established. The factory employs up to 40 people, but a number of challenges, including political changes within the country sees the plant close in 1998. At this time, all American production is shifted, for the time being, to Enfield in Connecticut.

Join us tomorrow, when we move into the 90’s – a period where we see some diversification of themes, a broadening colour palette, and and increased influence of Technology on our favorite bricks.

Until then,

Play Well.




While you are here, there is still time to join the 90 years of play classic themes challenge on Instagram, hosted by myself and Jen from @brickfambuilds. You can find further details here

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