Johnathon Vaughn sits by a large window in his Gastown apartment, wearing a black turtleneck. Besides his hands, feet, and neck, his entire body underneath the fabric is covered in tattoos—a far cry from the archetype of someone interested in Lego.
It’s curious to many, the concept of adults playing with a child’s toy. But Vaughn, who is the principal and creative director of Gastown design firm Epix Studios, views Lego as an exploration into physical space, composition, architecture, and shadow—all basic building blocks of design principle.
Vaughn became an Adult Fan of Lego (AFOL) nearly two years ago, when a friend started posting pictures on Instagram of a Volkswagen van he was building with the tiny bricks. Inspired to try it for himself, Vaughn began creating his own pieces: primarily replicas of Vancouver landmarks, including Save On Meats, the Gastown steam clock, and Pacific Central Station.
He describes what happened next as “falling down the rabbit hole.”
As a self-proclaimed extremist, Vaughn admits he has an addictive personality, latching on to whatever challenges him to examine life to its fullest and from varying angles. When he started running, it had to be a full marathon. When he started smoking, he loved it until he suddenly quit. When he reads, it’s the likes of James Joyce and Oscar Wilde—heavy, substantial, and always questioning. A new project or hobby, whatever it may be at the time, is all-consuming until it’s done. “I view what I do with Lego as the same; it’s such a small part of who I am, yet it contributes to my overall wellbeing,” he says. “You know when you go to bed and you need to sleep, but there are a million things in your head just firing away? I used to grab The New York Times crossword puzzle, and the chaos of the day was refined to a four-letter word for ‘balcony in an Italian opera house’. It was an escape, it was relaxing and calming—that’s Lego for me now. It’s replaced every other fixation I have ever had.”
Psychiatrist and author Dr. Shimi Kang says that nowadays we are keeping ourselves busier than ever, but we are also intuitively drawn to slow down. “Adults need to play as much as kids; our brains are wired for it,” she says. “All kinds of play, including Lego, stimulate our adaptive centers of our brain, allowing us to become comfortable with uncertainty, learn through trial and error, regulate our emotions, and think critically.” She adds that there is no need for concern when it comes to adults who are drawn to toys designed to entice children. “This is a great sign that we are moving closer to our humanity and what optimizes our brains,” she explains.
Though it seems niche, there are countless AFOLs; in fact, this April will see the Adult Lego Fan Convention, BrickCan, take place in Richmond. For four days, hundreds of Lego builders from across North America and around the world will gather to showcase their models and custom designs.
For Vaughn, connections to Lego are present even through the tattoos under his turtleneck. On his back, a Japanese deity supported by a dragon helps those on their journey through life into heaven; on his front, two juvenile koi dive down into a spring. The legend of the koi says that once they come back around through the seasons, they turn into dragons. “So if you see a Japanese dragon, it has the scales of koi, the antlers of deer, and the lion’s mane,” says Vaughn. “All of these parts are present because after you go through life, you are a collection of all the things you have seen and done.”
So how does that tie back to a colorful plastic brick?
“The person I am today is because of exploration like this,” he says. “Opposed to looking at things with a critical eye, I look at it with an eye of intrigue.”
Lego has given him a new way to examine a familiar city. He finds himself constantly looking around Vancouver to see what he can replicate in Lego form, with his sights often set on Gastown. Beyond honouring his love for architecture, Lego has strengthened his relationship with his brother and provided a deeper understanding of his young nephew. It draws a connection between adulthood and childhood, with joy as the common denominator. “I state unequivocally that Lego is the only thing that everyone responds to with a smile,” Vaughn says. “People connect to it because, at its core, it’s about happiness.”
Unless, of course, you step on one.
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