Interview: Bjarne P. Tveskov, Classic LEGO Space Designer

bjarne_allsets.jpg

Image: All the sets Bjarne created for LEGO Space.

One of the great pleasures of blogging is meeting people who had an influence on your life simply by off-handedly mentioning their work, prompting a conversation. That's what happened with Bjarne P. Tveskov and me after I'd included some of the LEGO sets he had designed in my "Sets I have Known and Loved" piece. Turns out the guy who made some of my very favorite sets of all time hangs out on our neck of the internet. We're in good company!

I chatted with the Danish concept developer back-and-forth over email.

BBG: What did designing kits for LEGO entail back in '80s? Were you working in an office or contracting from home?

Bjarne: It was all done internally at the LEGO Groups development department in Billund.

My LEGO career started when I was 17 years old; I saw an ad in the Sunday newspaper, they were looking for designers for the Space product line. No formal qualifications were required so just for fun I applied. They sent me a big box of LEGO bricks and asked me to create a Space model from imagination. Still got the model I made back then. (image coming later). At the interview I realized that the job was a full-time position in Billund, initially I thought that maybe it could be a freelance gig, but no. So when suddenly I was offered the job I had to ask my parents if it was OK if I quit high-school to become a Spaceship designer. They said it was fine, thinking I could always return to school later when I was done with the toy adventure. (But it never happened)

BBG: Where did the ideas for the models come from? Did someone from LEGO say "Bjarne, we need a big space ship for the Blacktron line" or did you come up with the ship so they decided to produce it?

Bjarne: Well, normally there was a brief to create a new space ship or vehicle or base at a specific price point. Maybe the model were to replace an existing set or maybe there would be some other requirements. But there would always be a fixed "brick-budget" one had to stay within. That was often the hardest part; If the model was over budget, one had to simplify and sometimes strip all the little cool extras of the models. Each brick has an internal price, and there was a whole department that did nothing but calculate the prices of all the prototype models we designed. Often 20-30 different models would be built, and only one would be selected for production. Then the models went through a committee of super-experienced model-designers to make sure stability and buildability was optimal.

I remember that one of the toughest ones to slim down to the right price was the Blacktron Alienator (6876). It had to be rebuilt and re- calculated several times before the brick-count was low enough. But it's still also one my favorite sets out of the 20+ LEGO Space models I designed  back in the day from 1986 to 1990.

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Image: The design that scored Bjarne a job.

BBG: So were Blacktron bad guys or not? It seemed like LEGO was still avoiding putting proper weapons in sets back then, but it was pretty clear that Blacktron was supposed to be the guys that the Space Police caught.

Bjarne: Bad guys? Noooo. OK, they were a little bad, but in a good way... I remember there were some focus groups done with German mothers and they deemed the Blacktron models and minifigs to be a little too scary and aggressive. I don't think the Blacktron Renegade (6954) ever became available in Europe, and there was a memo issued saying that the Blacktron should always be shown with their visors open... Also when we did Blacktron II a couple of years later, it was a somewhat watered-down style, in my opinion not as good as the original Blacktron theme. And yes, Space Police was created to bring back law and order in the universe. The little mobile prison cell with the laser bars was a fun thing to design, even if it was a little cruel for the Blacktron guys to be imprisoned inside the pod. The big Space Police Mission Commander (6986) is another personal favorite of mine. Except it was quite tough for the poor kids to build; As designers we sometimes forgot that while we became better and better at creating advanced designs over time, there were new 6- or 7-year-olds who had to be able to build them (and even if it has an 8+ age marking on the box, the younger kids will still get the models for birthdays, Christmas etc.)

BBG: Do you still do any work for the company? How has working as a designer changed over the years?

Bjarne: I left the company in 1998 but I have been fortunate to work on many freelance projects, mainly concept work for LEGO.com, Knights Kingdom, Mindstorms and other projects that I can't mention. You could say that I got my "education" while working at LEGO Company, I still use a lot of things that I learned back then. From 1990 to 1998 I was working on trying to combine LEGO with all the emerging digital possibilities; Educational software, cdroms and internet and so on and so forth. But the eighties was in many ways a "Golden era" for the LEGO Company; One of the main challenges seemed to be deciding what new projects to shelve, otherwise the growth in sales would be too high (!). In the nineties things changed quite a bit. Suddenly there was a lot more competition in the marketplace and it became harder to respond to changing trends and new products like videogames and action figures etc. But I also believe that today there is a much more collaborative and international feel in the company in general.

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