So here’s a job for you: Every day, you go to a Manhattan penthouse and build stuff out of an essentially unlimited supply of Lego building blocks. You build a cello; a life-size Steven Colbert, complete with business suit; a stunningly realistic iPhone. You even pull an all-nighter to build a boy and his laptop for an IEEE Spectrum feature story (”From Bricks to Bits,” in this issue).
That’s life for Nathan Sawaya [above], whose studio looks like an 8-year-old’s dream come true. It’s full of objects instantly recognizable and yet alien as well. Equally impressive is the workroom, where along every wall, individual bricks fill plastic tubs stacked from floor to ceiling. Sawaya figures he’s got about 1.5 million individual bricks. But in case a large commission comes up, he keeps another 3 million to 4 million in storage.
The New York City–based artist used to work in more conventional forms, but six years ago he switched full-time to Lego bricks. Sawaya builds these sculptures for such clients as Donald Trump, who wanted a 10-foot-high sculpture for a hotel in Dubai. He also does fine-art pieces for museums and galleries; ”The Art of the Brick” shows are currently touring North America.
He’s not a Lego employee, but as a ”Lego Certified Professional”—one of only nine in the world—he has a special relationship with the company, which allows him to buy Lego bricks at a steep discount. ”I order them by the pallet,” he explains. ”It’s not like there are lots of clients who call and say, ’I need 10 000 bricks of this type.’ ” Even with his discount, Sawaya says he spends six figures a year on the bricks.
Lego bricks are pretty sturdy to begin with, but for extra durability Sawaya glues the pieces together as he builds. That means that when a brick ends up where it doesn’t belong, Sawaya turns to a more traditional sculpting tool: his chisel.
This article originally appeared in print as "Legos for a Living."