He created LEGO Pirates, worked on LEGO Castle and Space, designed the classic horse and Captain Redbeard – and he is still at the LEGO Group today hand-sculpting elements. Niels Milan Pedersen is a living legend, with his signature hat and dry sense of humour ensuring you can’t mistake him for anyone else.
It’s amazing to think just how many childhoods Niels has touched during his 43 year career. Given his breadth of experience at the LEGO Group, he was an essential person to speak to as part of Blocks magazine’s 100th monthly magazine. In the interview, he discusses getting a job at the LEGO Group with no formal training, developing LEGO Pirates and shares a look at the original version of 6285 Black Seas Barracuda.
When he started at the LEGO Group, designing digitally simply wasn’t an option. It was a time of great experimentation, which led to classic themes that are loved today by those who grew up with them, and influenced everything that has come since. There was no plan to become a toy designer though; it happened as a result of his mother seeing a job advert.
‘We didn’t have much LEGO when I was a kid,’ Niels recalls. ‘The few LEGO elements we had I was not allowed to play with, my brother claimed that I would make them dirty… and I probably would have. I’d been making most of my toys myself and also making toys for the other kids in the small village where I came from. They were made from all kinds of things, mostly toilet paper, glue, wood and quite a lot of lead.
‘My mum had seen in the paper that LEGO was hiring for somebody to build with LEGO, so she thought that I could apply for that job. I said “bah, they don’t want anybody without any background,” but I applied. I didn’t even know how to write a letter introducing myself, so I made a stupid letter with a lot of drawings in and things like that, I didn’t think I would ever hear anything from them.
‘Then one day I came home to my little apartment and there was a huge box of LEGO bricks in front of my door. But no letter, no explanation – that was typical of my boss to be, that he forgot to put in the letter. It came a couple of days later. They wanted me to actually build some sort of space thing, because they couldn’t say that they were actually looking for somebody to start on the new Castle theme.’
At that point, Town and Space had both launched, but Castle wasn’t a fully fledged theme yet, hence the secrecy. Niels put together a spaceship in the style of the Space models that were available at the time, then was called in for an interview.
‘It didn’t start in a good way because I had to take the train and bus down to Billund. I got off the bus at LEGOLAND because I thought that’s LEGO. It was pouring down heavily with rain.’ Unfortunately, LEGOLAND Billund was a little walk away from the actual headquarters, where Niels was supposed to be going.
‘To look approximately decent I had borrowed a jacket from my neighbour. It was one of those 1970s velvet brown jackets, which was a little too small for me. And before I got to the headquarters, I was totally soaked, I could feel this jacket getting even smaller and starting to smell quite awful. I had long wet hair, I looked like a drowned rat – like something the cat really ought not to have dragged in.
‘I was also late, so I thought this is going to be a total disaster. But I came into the room where my boss to be, Jens Nygaard Knudsen, was sitting with the head of the department and someone from HR.
‘They had told me to bring things that I had made. Part of my childhood was spent on the island of Bornholm, just below the biggest castle ruin here in Northern Europe, Hammershus. I played in that castle so I was always inspired to draw knights and things like that. Luckily I had made a lot of lead soldiers. When I started to unwrap one of these lead knights or soldiers, Jens said “wow”, he almost threw himself across the table and grabbed the thing. What I didn’t know at the time was that he had always been making tin soldiers himself, and that was one of his main hobbies.
‘Then the interview was over and on my way out of the door, I heard Jens say to the director, “this looks good. He’s perfect.” I thought, “okay, it wasn’t a total disaster.”’
A few days later, Niels received a phone call offering him the job and asking about his salary expectations. ‘I didn’t know, because before that I’d only been a fisherman, but of course, they had an idea. They told me the number and I say “yes, yes,” because it was way more than I had ever had before.
‘I started in 1980 in the middle of summer. I was welcomed by Jens and Daniel Krentz. It was quite a small family then, there were 43 of us in all of the development department. As far as I’ve been able to calculate with some of the old guys, we were 12 designers in total. And none of us had any sort of design background.’
To read about Niels’s work creating LEGO Pirates, getting the owner’s input on Captain Redbeard and more, you’ll need to buy Issue 100 of Blocks, the monthly LEGO magazine.