When Matthew Ashton, LEGO Group’s vice president of design, was a child, he and his brother were very different. He knew he identified LGBTQ+ from an early age, and his brother was, well, more traditionally a boy and fairly aggressive. “I would be outside twirling in the garden, and my brother would be taking all the heads off the daffodils with his light saber,” Ashton says of his childhood. The one thing they both did together, though, and which gave them many hours of pleasure was play with LEGO.
At the time, Ashton knew that he loved how LEGO let him use his imagination to create, but he had no idea he would end up working for the company. In fact, his first ambition took him to the world of fashion. Yet, as so often happens in the world of toys, it was only by happenstance that he ended up in the business. As part of a show and a job fair at the end of his training, he had to figure out how to show all his designs in a tiny space. In a moment of inspiration, he made miniature versions of his collection, which he put on Barbie dolls. As luck would have it, his booth near the exit. “Everyone who left had to go by my display,” he said, and his work caught the eye of the LEGO recruiter on their way out the door. That was the moment that started him on his current path.
At LEGO Group, Ashton has overseen design on many of the company’s toys and entertainment properties and oversees hundreds of designers in Billund, Denmark and around the world. His most recent creation, however, is the Everyone is Awesome set introduced in June of this year, that celebrates inclusion, positivity, acceptance, and diversity. The name comes from the earworm song from The LEGO Movie, and Ashton says that the set was originally developed when he was looking around to decorate a new office space and was just fooling around. After attending an executive meeting where attendees were challenged to come up with their personal missions, the set as an expression of his values and vision began to take shape. Noting the positive response from co-workers, he suggested it as a product to management, and it was a go. The set includes stripes for all colors of the traditional rainbow flag, as well as black and brown, and the blue, white and pink stripes of the transgender community aka the Progress flag. There’s a LEGO Minifig for each color, and the effect is like a miniature monument and celebration. The set is available for $34.99 at LEGO.com, and to date sales have been strong
Ashton’s set also reflects LEGO’s culture and ethic. The company site says, “We believe that LEGO play is for everyone, no matter your race, your gender, how you identify or who you love.” The company has many Global and Local Employee Advocacy groups, which ensure that diversity and inclusion are part of all aspects of the company. Moreover, Ashton’s set is just one of many sets that have been created—some by fans—to celebrate LGBTQ+ people.
When the Everyone is Awesome set was introduced, it created huge publicity, some of it not so supportive. Ashton took all of that in stride, noting that in the current climate that was just the next thing people hooked into…yet only for a day or two. He notes that in a couple of days the people carping were on to something else—and the set is still here.
What is enduring—and inspiring—about this set, LEGO and Ashton himself—is the message this sends. He adds that when he was a boy or a young man struggling to come out and live authentically, he would have loved a set like this. “It would have been such a relief to know that someone had my back,” he says. The validation, belief and support would have been incredible for him. That’s why he sees this as so much more than just a toy or a LEGO set. It’s a gift to everyone that comes from the heart.
– Christopher Byrne
Photo courtesy of The LEGO Group