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Catching Up With Daniel Morey, LEGO Master Builder

By Kim Bellware in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 24, 2010 7:30PM

A little more than two years ago as the real world housing market was in free-fall, the not-yet-opened LEGOLAND Discovery Center Chicago was looking to start some construction of its own—on a “miniland” scale. About the same time, Daniel Morey was finding himself with fewer and fewer projects in his work as a contract carpenter.

“I was a carpenter for seven years,” says Morey, now the LEGO Master Builder at Discovery Center Chicago. “Then the housing market went down and never picked up again. So, I started looking around and saw the LEGO competition.”

The competition was a LEGO-sponsored “build-off” in which competitors were given one hour to build whatever they wanted out of classic LEGO bricks. The prize: a full-time gig as a LEGO builder for the Discovery Center. Morey, who says he’s been a LEGO fan since childhood, took on the challenge with relative ease; it was the judging that he found a little tougher.

“Kids judged [the competition],” says Morey. “I made a [McDonald’s] Happy Meal, complete with drinks with a bendy straw. I had fun! But kids are very blunt and to the point. One came right out and says, ‘your fries looks messed up. You should fix that.’”

Morey took the criticism in stride and aided by his carpentry background and eye for design, he ultimately beat the competition.

“Ever since I was a kid I’ve been into design and art. When I was a carpenter, I’d design my own furniture; everything in my house is custom,” says Morey. As far as being a LEGO builder, Morey, who says he never went to art or design school, thinks it’s more about seeing and thinking creatively. “If you don’t have that artistic eye and that kind of personality it’s harder to make it [as a builder]. It takes time. There’s no training, other than experience.”

While Morey spends plenty of his time immersed in LEGO building for the Discovery Center, he gets to try his make his own personal creations from time-to-time. Those, he says, citing his Happy Meal piece for the competition that won him his job, are the most fun for him.

“I did a mosaic, a picture of my grandparents,” says Morey. “I liked it so much I wanted to keep it. But, it wasn’t mine, I eventually I had to give it to them.” Though, Morey does have another favorite creation—the bust of a well-known Chicagoan.

“My hands down favorite model was when I went to California for a month for training,” says Morey. “We had to build a human bust, and as a life-long Chicagoan, I chose to build Harry Caray.

Projects like those, says Morey, take longer than many of the LEGO-directed projects because they don’t come with plans—“and nobody’s ever built it before. Harry Caray took 60 hours to build. It’s in the Harry Caray’s down on Kinzie now.”

The LEGO Harry is recognizable and blocky, made from only classic bricks. Morey says new LEGO models, especially of humans, look better and smoother, citing the technology and the programs used to design the sculptures. As for the newer, “non-standard” LEGOS on the market, Morey goes back and forth.

“I’m on the fence with those [pieces],” says Morey. “I love that you can create a Yoda and a Harry Caray from classic pieces that have been around for 40 years. But the new pieces are exciting because they open doors to completely different creations.”

Another classic Morey enjoys: the iconic LEGO man hair. Morey laughs at the comparisons between ex-Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich and the classic LEGO man.

“They were spot-on with that,” says Morey of Blagojevich’s LEGO-like hair. “Really, it’s more of a compliment.”