36-year-old Singaporean Nicholas Foo is truly one of a kind.
The only full-time time artist who is a Lego Certified Professional in Singapore and Asia, he gets to play and build Lego bricks all day, and gets paid too.
There are only 13 such Lego professionals in the world. Foo became the fifth such person back in 2006 and the only one from outside the United States to have been awarded the prestigious certificate at the time.
His love affair with Lego started when he received his first Lego set - a small car with less than 20 pieces - when he was just eight. Instantly, he fell in love with the colourful building blocks and the idea of putting things together only to take them apart to create new things.
"I was hooked on it for a long time until I got my second set. And then you reach the "two sets are not enough, I need more" stage," Foo said.
"The most interesting thing about Lego is the versatility. You can build anything you imagine and you're only limited by the amount of pieces you have," he continued.
Having been in the creative industry for over 10 years, he reached a point where he felt restrained with his work and wanted to do more with his love for Lego.
The big turning point in his decision to go professional was when he was thinking of creating a gift for a friend a few years ago.
So he used Lego bricks to create a bear with a hidden compartment in its tummy that could hide small gifts. He took a photo of his creation and uploaded it online. His original creation was an instant hit. Emails came flooding in, enquiring about his services. It was then that he decided to turn his hobby into a business and his full-time profession.
According to Foo, it's hard to become a Certified Professional. The Lego company has a set of criteria that looks at specific skills.
"There are some Lego fans who can build really well, even better than me, but don't get accepted into the programme," said Foo.
Other than having good building skills, you also have to show that you are creative, demonstrate that you're a people person, carry yourself well and have a good business plan. It's a big step apart from a hobby because you're running a business, he said.
The whole application process for the Lego certification took less than a year, and Foo was soon flown in to Enfield, Connecticut to be accepted into the programme. There was no training involved as Certified Professionals are expected to be expert builders already.
Certified professionals are not Lego employees but are officially recognised by the Lego Group as trusted business partners. This means they are allowed to market and sell their services as Lego master artists.
Is it easy to earn a living as a Lego Certified Professional?
"I work 12 to 14 hours a day. That's partly because I have a very active mind and even when I'm not on projects, I'm always thinking up of stuff I can build," said Foo.
"I was well-paid in my previous jobs and they have equally long hours. But the reward I get now is on a different kind of level. It's not just the money but also the satisfaction I get from being able to find the balance between giving my clients what they want and pushing myself to build better," the former advertising man added.
Since getting accepted as a Certified Professional, Foo has received both private commissions and corporate commissions. His weirdest request ever -- wearable Lego lingerie, and he turned that client down.
So what are the perks of being a Lego Certified Professional? Do they get unlimited Lego bricks?
"I really wish that was the case but no, we have to buy them. We have a business relationship with the Lego group so they do allow us to buy in bulk for our projects," Foo explained with a chuckle.
Another perk of the job is travelling to different countries and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of different people. Foo once made a Lego bear for Hong Kong actress Kate Tsui during a charity event and she made him one in return.
"We were given five minutes to create something out of Lego bricks. I made her a teddy bear while she built something out of her imagination and said it was supposed to me," he said.
He also travels to Denmark every year to meet the other 12 Lego Certified Professionals to catch up and discuss various business opportunities.
This December, Singaporeans will be able to see one of his original creations -- Foo will be creating a Christmas tree made entirely from Lego bricks to be displayed at the ArtScience Museum.
Foo will be onsite from 4 to 10 December, 10am to 7pm, at the entrance of the museum building the tree piece by piece. Members of the public take part in the construction of the Lego Christmas tree by creating Lego baubles for the tree.
The ornaments will be placed on the tree and it will be officially lit on Monday, 10 December at 7pm.