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Monroe man built Lego mania brick by brick

MONROE -- The Lego company flew Mark Neumann to...
/ Source: The Everett Herald

MONROE — The Lego company flew Mark Neumann to Denver twice on a secret mission.

The company put him up in a hotel with about 50 other people from across the globe. He met Australians, Europeans and other Americans.

Then the toy giant asked the group for a little advice.

The Monroe resident can’t say much about the trips. His lips are bound by legal agreements. He was helping develop the company’s massive multiplayer online game, “Lego Universe,” expected to be released this year.

“I can say it is an awesome game,” he said.

Neumann, 37, played with Legos as a child, but stopped when he became a teen. In his mid-20s, Neumann returned to the hobby and his old collection of 20,000 pieces grew to about 1 million. He gained a reputation on the Internet for sci-fi designs made with his collection.

The ability to connect with other Lego fanatics online solidified a love for the multicolored bricks.

“People could post pictures and brag about it,” he said. “There was this really fun social element.”

Neumann’s more than a chat-room hobbyist, though. He’s consulted for the Danish toy giant, founded a fan convention and created award-winning Lego designs.

“I plan to keep doing this until I can’t handle the bricks anymore,” he said. “I’ll do this until I die probably.”

Lego’s slump

Neumann’s reignited passion for Legos coincided with a difficult time for the classic toy maker.

The privately held company was in a financial slump about 10 years ago. Electronics were gobbling up dollars. Lego sets, which can cost more than a video game, looked antiquated.

So Lego started to rebuild.

The company moved into new areas. It added more retail stores; one opened at Bellevue Square Mall in 2004. It released more sets tied to movies, including “Star Wars” and “Toy Story.” And it launched a best-selling series of video games.

Lego, now firmly in the black, also started reaching out to adult fans through people like Steve Witt, a community relations coordinator for the company.

Witt met Neumann about 2005 and now considers him a go-to contact for help.

“He’s just one of those people who’s very insightful, very smart, very professional,” Witt said.

A Renaissance man

Neumann doesn’t limit himself to the interlocking blocks. He’s more of a Renaissance man.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Washington, and works as an engineering designer for Monroe, planning sidewalks and water lines.

Math comes naturally to him, he said. His boss agreed.

“He’s as good or better than any degreed engineer I’ve worked with,” Monroe’s managing engineer Maggie Inahara said. “I think he has kind of an uncanny spatial ability.”

Neumann lives at the end of a cul-de-sac with his 7-year-old son, Aidan Neumann, his wife, a part-time belly dance instructor whose full name is Raven, and their pets: a dog, two cats, a bearded dragon lizard and 14 chickens.

His wife has no objections to his Lego habit. The blocks help him connect with their first-grader, and she always knows how he’s spending his money.

“It makes holiday shopping for him really easy,” she said.

The Legoratory

Neumann keeps his collection in a 200-square-foot refurbished shed he named the Gen. George Patton Jr. Lego Legoratory. (He finds Patton “stirring.”)

Inside the shed, under halogen track lights, he snaps together Legos to create the robots and spaceships he dreams up.

He keeps his 1 million Legos neatly divided by color and shape in hundreds of plastic bins. The collection is insured for $10,000 but is worth more.

“I don’t even want to think about the dollar amount,” Neumann said.

His designs often win honors at conventions such as BrickCon, an annual Seattle event that he helped found in 2002.

Wayne Hussey now runs that October convention, which drew nearly 10,000 people last year. Hussey said Neumann excels at creating “mechas” — gun-toting robots often patterned on animals or people.

“There are a lot of people out there, thousands of adult builders in the world,” Hussey said. “I would say he’s probably in the top 10 or 15.”

Neumann usually keeps his creations intact for a few months, then scraps them. He enjoys the fact that his intricate work isn’t built to last. It appeals to his worldview as a Buddhist — and as a Lego fan.

“You see the faults and flaws, or the things you could have done better,” he said. “Then you take it apart.”

Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455;

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