An interview with Matthew Ashton

Matthew Ashton from Upton - Vice President of Design at LEGO, co-executive producer of The LEGO® Movie, LEGO Batman Movie and Head Judge on Channel 4’s LEGO Masters show talks to Wirral Life in an exclusive interview.

After achieving your degree in Fashion Design, you originally went to LEGO to do freelance work, and the rest as they say is history. But do you still harbour a desire to work in the fashion industry again?
While I thoroughly enjoyed studying fashion and textile design, my heart is now well and truly rooted in the toy industry. Being a toy designer was something that I dreamed about as a kid, but was something that I never really considered a ‘real’ job, it was something Santa’s little helpers did, or Tom Hanks from the movie ‘BIG!’. I had never met a ‘real life’ toy designer, and you hear so little about them, so becoming one just seemed like a pipe dream. I knew I wanted to do something creative. I was a bit of an all-rounder at Art College, and I kind of fell into fashion as it seemed like the best thing for me at the time. Luckily for me, some LEGO talent scouts stumbled across my work at an exhibition in London, where I had minimized my final catwalk collection and displayed them on Barbie dolls. They loved my work and plucked me from obscurity and made that little ‘7 year old version of me’ dreams come true.

After the enormous success of the first LEGO movie and the LEGO Batman movie (with a combined gross of nearly half a billion dollars), can you tell us if you will be producing more LEGO superhero movies – LEGO Avengers, etc? Or are you going in a different direction?
There are more LEGO Movies in the works but I can’t go into the specifics of what they are as that information is highly confidential. What I can tell you is that I am currently working on The LEGO Movie 2, which is incredibly exciting but also extremely ambitious. It’s so nice to be able to bring Emmet and co. back to the big screen, but I’m afraid you guys are going to have to wait until 2019 to see what kind of adventure we are taking the gang on!

You were recently head of the judges on the very popular Channel 4 show ‘LEGO Masters’. Where did that idea come from? Will there be another series?
It all stemmed back to when we made a behind-the-scenes documentary for Channel 4 called ‘The Secret World of LEGO’. Part of that program focused on the recruitment process that we use for finding new talent to work in the LEGO Product Design Department. We receive so many applications for our Design Positions that we have found the best way to identify who the best people are for the job, is to select who we feel are the most appropriate candidates, and then fly them to LEGO Headquarters in Billund, Denmark for a recruitment workshop. This is where they will be interviewed but also asked to complete a series of design and building challenges, so we can see up close just how skilled and talented they are in real life, how well they work in teams and if they have the right profile to fit the job. Some very clever people at Tuesday’s Child (the production company) and Channel 4 thought this would make a perfect format for a challenge show, so they put together a pitch and presented it to the LEGO Group. We loved it and we decided to give it a go. I was then asked to go through a series of screen tests along with some other LEGO Design Employees before being cast in the very exciting but also extremely daunting role of Head Judge.

The show has been amazing to be part of. I have met so many wonderful people, and all the contestants were incredible and so inspiring! The first season was quite short with just 4 episodes, so while it was a lot of fun, I really didn’t feel I got into the swing of things until the final episode and then it was all over. I really hope we get to make a second season, but I am still waiting to hear if it gets recommissioned. Fingers crossed Melvin and I will be back in the ‘Build Room’ with some brand new teams and exciting challenges at some point next year!

Working with Warner Bros on the movies must have been pretty exciting compared to your normal day, was it as you dreamed it might be, or quite a challenge?
Oh my gosh, when I look at my life, I can’t believe the journey I have been on. Just landing my dream job as a toy designer was incredible in itself! I would never ever have imagined that one day I would also be working on a TV show and helping to make movies too… it’s been mind-blowing! Of course, like all things in life, these projects have had their ups and downs. We have been incredibly lucky to work with some of the most talented directors, writers and animators that we could have wished for – that in itself has been a blessing. But of course on any project like this there are crazy deadlines, and heaps of opinions that cause bumps in the road – but at the end of the day, we pulled it off and made some movies we are incredibly proud of. So many people were sceptical about us venturing into movie-making territory, so the pressure was on from the get-go. It was huge relief when we received such positive reviews and overwhelming audience reactions. Those films mean so much to me!

A popular reaction when we announced you as the next big interview was “Wow – he must have the world’s coolest office”. Surely one of the most enjoyable positions in the world – designing toys and ‘playing’ with LEGO as a job. You’re also now managing a large team, do you still get time to play?
Yes, the pressure is on. And yes, in some respects it is a dream job, in others it feels like I have a huge responsibility on my shoulders. The LEGO brand is such a loved and recognised brand across the world, so making sure that we create products that live up to or exceed people’s expectations year after year can be quite a challenge. I luckily work with a team of incredibly talented designers who are so passionate about what we do that we generally hit the mark. So yes, there is a balance of living a ridiculous Willy Wonka-style dream job, where I have an excuse not to ‘really’ grow up, but I also have to put my business hat on, make some tough decisions and be commercially focused too. It may surprise you to hear that I don’t actually have my own office, I’m sat in the thick of it working alongside our designers in an open plan studio. My boss tried to put me in an office once which lasted about 4 months as it drove me stir-crazy. I need to be out and about and inspired by the creative people I work with. I’m also a bit of a social butterfly, who likes to have a giggle and a goss with my colleagues too. I do try to stick to a minimal LEGO building outside of work rule. When it is your day job, it’s healthy to have other interests outside, so very little building outside of work (I can hear AFOLS (Adult Fans of LEGO) gasping in horror as they read this!) and I find other ways to have fun outside of work.

It must have been interesting to move to Denmark all those years ago. How have you found living abroad?
Denmark in itself is very nice, although the LEGO Group is based in Billund in rural Jutland, so it’s quite quiet. I live in a town called Vejle which is about 30 minutes away from work and has all the amenities that you need – nice shops, cinema, restaurants and coffee shops. Danes in general are really lovely and as a nation they have somehow managed to strike that very difficult balance between work and life. Their families and children are extremely important to them, and in many cases prioritized over work, so they have a really good standard of living. Working in the LEGO Design Department, we have over 200 hundred employees from all around the world. At last count, we represent 32 different nationalities, so having such a big expat group we really support each other and find ways to have our own fun. Being a creative bunch, there are the obligatory fancy-dress parties thrown for whatever occasion and usually everyone pulls out all the stops. Of course it’s not all rosy, and there are so many things I miss from home, especially family and friends, but also British telly, food and all the naughty stuff like Cadbury’s chocolate and the odd bag of Monster Munch or Salt and Vinegar Squares. We are really lucky though, as we have an international airport ten minutes from work, so I can jump on a plane and burst out of the Billund bubble and be back in the UK in just over an hour!

As you know, the Wirral has a Danish heritage – It’s very fashionable to talk about the Danish “Hygge” (pronounced “HUE-gah – a Danish ritual – meaning to enjoy life’s simple pleasures) do you have any other favourite Danish rituals?
Danes have some really funny traditions… if you reach 30 and you are still single, your friends will douse you head to toe in pepper, or erect a ridiculous large home made statue crafted from oil drums outside your front door, which is impossible to move or get rid of. Kids’ birthdays are celebrated with a Kagemand, (instead of a traditional birthday cake as you know it) – it’s like a giant flat sugar-coated bread thing in the shape of a man, and instead of blowing out some candles and making a wish, everyone has to scream while you lop his head off! They also have Fastelavn, which I guess is similar to our Halloween, where everyone dresses up and then bashes a barrel with a stick (piñata style) until it bursts and sweets fall out… luckily they have moved on from the original tradition which had something to do with bashing a barrel with a real life cat in it! They do also have some really charming Christmas traditions where a ‘Nisse’ invades the family home in the run up to Christmas – this is represented by a plush gnome (kind of like Elf on a Shelf), then while everyone is asleep the ‘Nisse’ gets up to mischief during the night. When the kids wake up, they find naughty ‘Nisse’ has dyed the milk blue (with food colouring), strewn toilet roll all over the place, or stuck kids toys to the ceiling… little kids go crazy for this and think it is the most hilarious thing ever!

What’s your favourite memory of the Wirral?
Oh my gosh there are too many to think of. A lot of them are quite outdoors. I loved playing in the back garden of our house on Manor Drive in Upton (my parents have now moved). We had an amazing willow tree which you could hide inside underneath the boughs, it had swings hidden inside it and my brother, sister and I used to pretend it was the Batcave. I loved school, I went to Christ Church Primary in Moreton, and then Wallasey School (now Kingsway Academy), so it’s a lot about mucking about with my school friends. But also lovely family walks with the dogs in Royden Park, Thurstaston, or a day trip to Hilbre Island or rolling down the sand hills at Harrison Drive as a kid!

What style is your home in Denmark – modern minimalist?
My flat is in dire need of a bit of a revamp. I moved in 10 years ago with all these grand ideas, and bought a place that would be a ‘bit of a project.’ I did a little bit of decorating, but then work and travel has gotten in the way of my masterplan a bit. I live in an apartment on the top floor of a four story building, and I guess compared to a lot of homes in the UK, the style is pretty minimal. It’s an older building with a lot of character. The inside is all white and clean with wooden floors, and it has a lovely balcony with an amazing view… it’s just such a shame that it’s only sunny 3 or 4 days a year so I don’t get to use it much. I’ll be off travelling for work for a week and get home and everyone will tell me ‘Oops, sorry, you just missed Danish summer!’

How do you relax and unwind?
I enjoy the usual drinks or dinner round at a friend’s place, cinema and the odd night out. I like to have a few creative projects on the go for any spare second too. A couple of my friends are really good bakers, so I let them do the cake making and then I will shape and decorate them for people’s birthdays! I also come back to London quite a bit and stay with friends over there, and play with my godson and his brother and sister. And I love a bit of heartwarming telly – I’m ploughing through a Golden Girls box set at the moment, and am overjoyed that Will & Grace is back. When I’m in the UK I love to catch up on Bake Off and the like, and my guilty pleasure is a cheeky bit of Gogglebox! 🙂

Favourite film. Last book that you read. Last film you saw?
Oh my, I have such an eclectic taste in films everything from Toy Story (3) and The Little Mermaid, to ARGO to Silence of the Lambs. I’m a bit all over the place, but I generally like anything that sparks an emotion or hits a nerve… I like a good giggle, to be scared senseless or to blub into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s (preferred flavour Vermonster) in my PJs. I also love musicals like Moulin Rouge, and Star Wars has a very special place in my heart too. Controversially, ‘Return of the Jedi’ is probably my favourite Star Wars Movie – I was always obsessed with Leia, I love Jabba and I am also pro-Ewok (told you it was controversial!) When it comes to books I’m also ashamed to admit I love a trashy celebrity auto biography – last one I read was probably Scarlet Moffatt’s (Sorry Scarlett Moffat if you are reading this! I am not at all suggesting you are trashy – I love you to bits!) Last movie I saw was The LEGO Ninjago Movie. It would have been rude not to as a lot of my friends and colleagues worked on it!

What was the best piece of advice that you have been given?
Stop worrying about what people think of you! (It hasn’t really worked, as I am still worrying what people think of me… in fact I think I have probably made the situation worse by sticking myself on telly, so now I worry what even more people think of me!)

Do you get back to the Wirral often and what do you like to do when you’re here?
I try to come back to the Wirral to visit my parents whenever I can and if there are any family events happening. I am home every Christmas, and a couple of times throughout the year, it’s mostly social stuff, catching up with relatives and people from school, or popping to the local garden centre for a cream tea or a piece of cake with my mum.

Are you a collector and what are your favourite things (art, watches, cars, etc)?
Being a toy designer, it’s probably not going to come as a great surprise to many people that I actually collect toys – anything from my childhood favourites from the 80s to collector vinyl toys. The dream is to ultimately have a nice display room where I can showcase all my favourites, but unfortunately most of them are in storage or squeezed into my spare room toy-tetras style. Anyone who visits is pre-warned to open the spare room door at their own risk, unless they want to be buried alive under an avalanche of plastic bricks, robots in disguise, or rainbow-maned plastic ponies… yes that’s right people, I’m an extreme herder!

Do you have a bucket list and if so, what’s on it?
I think I’m doing pretty well as far as my list is concerned. It would be lovely to have some time to take a proper cooking class, but that will have to wait for now. In the meantime, I just want to have the odd surprise and challenge thrown my way occasionally to keep things fresh and exciting so I am always on my toes!

If you weren’t a toy designer, what other job would you like to do?
Probably a wedding planner! I love a good wedding , and have been to so many now… ‘always the bridesmaid never the bride!’ I love organising parties, and decorating and all that kind of stuff and I also think I am capable of handling the odd Bridezilla too! I have probably been planning my own wedding since I was about 7 years old (Muriel style), but as I haven’t met my match yet, I would be more than content making other people’s marital dreams come true. If not a wedding planner then maybe a costume designer or a chocolate taster!

What’s your favourite food and do you like to eat out or prefer to cook?
I do like to cook, but with my busy schedule I don’t have that much time. Also, cooking for one can be quite monotonous, so I tend to eat out quite a bit with my friends. There isn’t a lot of choice for food in the town I live in so we usually default to our favourite restaurant, which does a variety of different specials all with a Danish twist! But when I am travelling I do love a bit of sushi. When I am in LA, I always pop to Katsuya for Albacore with Crispy Onions and Yellow tail sashimi with jalepenos! Living abroad means I really miss real comfort food, like my mum’s Sunday Roast, so when I’m back in Britain I love a good old British pub lunch like Sausage and Mash, with a good old dollop of wholegrain mustard. I also have an incredibly sweet tooth too – I’m a bit of a chocoholic and love anything salted caramel, especially ice cream! So yes all the good healthy stuff, which then means I need to go on a crash diet before I appear on telly!

Where do you like to go on holiday and why?
For a proper relaxing holiday, it’s probably Bali. I have been there twice and it is beautiful. One year I thought, right, I’m still single and may never get married, so I decided to splash out on a lavish ‘honeymoon for one’ and stayed in the most wonderful Spa Resort in Ubud, with breathtaking manicured grounds set in the heart of the lush jungle with a view over the layered rice fields. It was the most tranquil, relaxing, zen place I had ever been, the moment I walked through the gates I was hit by a wave of calm for the first time in my life – it was so beautiful I wanted to cry!

You have family here in UK – will you be spending Christmas here or in Denmark – or somewhere else?
Yes I will be back on the Wirral over Christmas and the new year catching up with my family and old school friends.

We all want the LEGO Millennium Falcon (no really, we do) but what’s top of your Christmas wish list (for yourself!) … A break?
While my job is amazing, it is pretty full-on; overseeing toy development as the day job, travelling lots while assisting making a movie and filming a TV show at weekends can take its toll – so I really just want to wind down and spend some time with the people I love and don’t get to see very often.

If you would like to follow Matthew, you can find him on Twitter at @matthew__ashton (double underscore).