By Gwendolyn Purdom
11:51 AM CDT, October 18, 2013
When Andrew Johnson’s in need of an icebreaker when he’s out at his favorite River North bars, his job comes in handy.
“The title of LEGO Master Model Builder is not something you hear very often, so it’s always easy to start a conversation,” Johnson said.
Impressing the opposite sex, though, is only one of the many perks Johnson enjoys since landing the coveted gig of Master Model Builder at LEGOLAND Discovery Center Chicago last year. While the Bartlett native’s roommate reports to his logistics job downtown each morning and other friends settle into their cubicles, Johnson spends his days teaching the Schaumburg center’s young visitors the latest building techniques; planning new installations and events; and snapping plastic bricks into place in the scaled-down version of Chicago the facility maintains--complete with its own Chicago Theatre, Navy Pier, and 11-foot Willis Tower--made from more than 1 million Lego pieces. At 25, Johnson is one of only five LEGO Master Model Builders in the country.
“I never realized that this could be a full-time position, that this [job] even existed,” said Johnson, a DePaul graduate. “And now I’m here getting to play with toys and kids and coming up with all these original creations all day. It’s definitely something I didn’t see coming.”
Back in his days as a history major and digital cinema minor at DePaul, Johnson considered film school out west after graduation. But when his dad saw that LEGOLAND was hiring, he encouraged his son to apply. Johnson spent his college summers teaching campers using LEGOs at the Chicago-based GreenApple Campus, and as an outgoing person, the required spokesman duties suited him well. Pitted against seven other finalists in March or 2012, Johnson wowed the hiring committee with his initial stop-motion video resume and during an intense three-round public build-off.
“He definitely shined brighter than most of the other candidates during the competition,” LEGOLAND’s trade sales manager Kristina Pucci says. “He had to have a good personality and work well with kids and also to know what he was doing building with LEGOs, so I think that’s how we chose him over everybody else.”
Johnson’s film background helped too. Since joining the staff, Johnson has overseen a stop-motion video competition and hopes to add media or film workshops into the curriculum at the center’s Master Builder Academy. Filmmaking actually runs in the family--Oscar-winning Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) is Johnson’s second cousin.
Aside from heading up the building academy, Johnson’s responsibilities change daily. In recent weeks, he and his team have spent hours building intricate, foot-long LEGO spiders and larger LEGO monsters for the “Brick-or-Treat” Halloween festivities. Prepping creatively for events like these is largely left up to Johnson and because he has to order the pieces from LEGO’s European manufacturer, that kind of planning takes months.
At home in the River North apartment he shares with a family friend, Johnson is just like any other young Chicago professional, frequenting Lincoln Park watering holes and playing in a beach volleyball league this past summer.
“It’s just funny, [my roommate] comes home and complains about having to deal with [his clients], and I come home and complain about how I didn’t get my 5,000 orders of LEGO wheels in that day,” Johnson said.
Of course, there are a few other differences: in addition to the typical bachelor pad décor, the men’s apartment contains Johnson’s elaborate LEGO replica of Doc Brown’s time-traveling DeLorean from “Back to the Future”, and his all-time favorite LEGO creation, a 3-foot-tall Blackhawks logo, built to honor the team’s 2013 Stanley Cup win.
Roommate Dan Lantz admitted he occasionally taunts Johnson for his quirky occupation--the teasing even made it into Lantz’s best-man speech at a wedding last year where Johnson was also a groomsman--but despite the jabs, he acknowledges Johnson’s hard work.
“He’s got a lot more stress than you would imagine at a job like that just because there’s a lot of project forming and managing; he has his hands in a lot of different areas,” Lantz said. “It seems a lot more glamorous than it is at times but I know he still really enjoys it.”
Lantz, for his part, said video games are about as childish as he’s willing to go with his own hobbies. He feels like he’s too old to be playing with LEGOs himself.
Johnson insisted that’s never the case.
“The bricks themselves don’t have an age limit,” Johnson said. “There are grandparents that bring their grandkids [to the Discovery Center] and they start out just admiring things, and then slowly you see them drawn to the bricks. They start to build their own things. I find while I’m building, I’ll lose track of time. It’s almost therapeutic.”
Gwendolyn Purdom is a RedEye special contributor.
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