By Kathy Johnson
Sitting in the living room of Vince Petrell’s home in Ivy one is surrounded by miniature buildings made from LEGO®s. And besides buildings, there are sculptures, customized picture frames and even a “photograph” made from LEGO®s. In his office there is a birthday cake with six removable “slices” and a cake cutter with a tiny little piece of “cake” on it. It represents 20 hours of work. There’s also a large portrait of his son, Tyler, done entirely in LEGO®s that took 16 hours to complete.
The Petrell family, Vince, wife Jean, Tyler and two dogs–—Anakin Skywalker and Vadar—recently moved to the Ivy area from Georgia, with a one-year layover in Old Trail. Petrell said the recent move from Old Trail to the new house was necessary to stay within their budget and add much-needed space for their two large black labs. “We liked Old Trail,” he said.
Things are gradually being unpacked and put away, but in the meantime Vince is doing what he now does: “working” with LEGO® blocks.
How did this web designer who operated his own Internet marketing company for more than 10 years become a LEGO® master?
“I was looking for something new,” he said. “I’d done [web marketing] since ’96, and I said, what can I do? I looked for about a year and nothing, you know, kind of stuck with me.
“One day my son brought home this book about LEGO®.” A warm smile lit up Petrell’s face as he told the story. “I was looking at the pictures, some from over in Europe, and some from LEGOLAND® in California and I was just blown away! I thought, all these years I played with LEGO® bricks I never knew they made that kind of stuff.”
“I started thinking—well? Well, I wonder if people would buy that? So I started doing some research to kind of see if you could buy LEGO® bricks (or blocks), how you could build them, and I started to play around and ordered some. It kind of blossomed from there. I love LEGO® so much.”
And blossom it has—into some 600,000 LEGO® bricks, mostly in boxes, but others in containers, on shelves or already put together in various pieces of sculpture and 3D designs. He has more than $20,000 worth of inventory filling boxes stacked along the walls, upstairs and downstairs, and in his workroom closet.
Most everyone knows what a LEGO® is and they all have a good memory of their LEGO® experiences, but are people interested in sculptures, logos, artwork made from LEGO®s? “Not LEGO®s,” Petrell explained. “LEGO® should be used as an adjective, as in LEGO® bricks or LEGO® blocks, not LEGO®s. I still catch myself doing it all the time, though,” Petrell quickly admitted.
“Once they find out about it, people are always amazed. First it’s like they don’t understand what it is, but once they understand what it is, they’re like, ‘Really? You can do that?’ and they start seeing the big things, so it’s getting really good response.”
Petrell said that business hasn’t grown as quickly as he hoped. “Recession, I think, is part of it. It’s a high-end product.” Picking up one of the LEGO® blocks, he said, “Each one of these little things is like ten cents a piece. This one here (pointing to a large flat design of blue and black) has 2,500 pieces on it and then there is a lot of time involved. A 30” x 30” inch structure is about 10,000 pieces and would take me 16 to 18 hours to build. But once people see it, they love it,” Petrell says. “Especially a big sculpture. Everybody is kind of amazed.”
Petrell said the most common colors he uses are white and black and he runs out of those most frequently. His computer experience comes in handy for creating mosaic-like “photos.” Those are first designed on his computer, which helps him to see which colors are needed and where they belong. Tan bricks are used for skin color. “I usually have to change it a lot, but this gives me the general idea. I usually have to work with the eyes to get them to come out right. Then there’s the mouth and the facial features.”
He starts with a computer design only when doing mosaics. “Any kind of sculpture, I just have to do that on my own. I get an idea of what I want to do and I start building.” Sculptures can take 1,000 pieces or maybe 20,000 to 30,000. It depends on the design. A lot of the cost involved in an original LEGO® creation is in the cost of the blocks.
Petrell’s business is named Allergic Gravity (“Unleash the child within,” its slogan says) and he had dubbed himself “Grand Poobah.” He’s definitely a man who believes that work can be fun.
Asked what project he would like to tackle, Petrell said, “I’d love to do a logo. No one’s asked me to do one. I’d love to take somebody’s logo and do a 3D of it. I also want to do events where people can hire me to go to their event–like a home show–and make something at the show. I could actually build a specific item for that.”
Petrell said that one of the most memorable items anyone has requested was a dog. “I did one for a guy’s wedding. He has a dog that he loves. That was his best man gift. It was gorgeous.” Another request was a Princess Aurora for a little girl’s birthday. “That was a large one, 10,000 pieces,” Petrell said.
His creations cost more than a lot of pieces and time. “My thumb gets sore. You have to push the pieces down real hard, so after a while it gets really sore. I try to do them over a couple of days. If you do it all at one time it gets hard.”
Petrell explained that there are individuals who, as a job, buy sets of the blocks and sort them by color. Many designs might take 10,000 of one color, so buying sets of LEGO® blocks and then dividing them could be very labor-intensive. “I get mine from the LEGO® shop. I go to LEGO.com and buy the sets and sort them out, which takes forever. If I need 10,000 of these (they are called one by twos), I’ll order from these guys.” Who knew?
Sets of LEGO® blocks cost from $10 for a small one to $500. LEGO® has just started recently to cater to us Adult Fans of LEGO® (AFLs).” Petrell said the company hadn’t wanted to do that because they didn’t really see an adult market. AFLs might be only 5 percent of the people buying blocks, but they now make up 25 percent of the sales.
Petrell and his family recently spent the weekend in Washington, D.C., at a big “brick fair.” “There were all these people. They took up three stories of the Sheraton with people who came and were showing off their LEGO®s. You should see these sculptures. Just huge. A crane two stories high. Just amazing. Trains. You wouldn’t believe some of these events that go on.”
A children’s toy that started in Billund, Denmark, where a master carpenter and joiner started his own small business to make stepladders, ironing boards and ‘wooden toys’ is now known around the world. Over 400 billion LEGO® bricks have been produced just since 1958. That’s about 62 LEGO® bricks for each person on Earth.
For more information about Allergic Gravity or its Grand Poobah, go to AllergicToGravity.com or contact Petrell at (434) 409-0600.