9 May 2019

Fabuland Lives On: the colours

This year marks 40 years since The LEGO Group (TLG) launched the FABULAND® theme, with ran until 1989. To celebrate this, we're going to run an occasional series of articles here at New Elementary called Fabuland Lives On! We'll examine the surprising legacy that this theme for 3-7 year olds has had upon the elements and colours of the LEGO System, and the hearts of fans. Kicking things off, we have LEGO® colour expert Ryan Howerter.
Note, in a departure from our usual convention for naming colours, in this article we use the TLG official colour ID and name (followed by the more well-known BrickLink name in brackets, where it differs to the official).

In today’s episode of Fabuland Lives On, to celebrate the history and legacy of everybody’s second-favorite theme, we will take a look at perhaps its most undersung and lasting contribution to the LEGO universe: earth-toned colors!

If we ignore the color anarchy that was The LEGO Group’s first few years of plastic production, the company built its brand around three unwavering primary colors: 21 Bright Red (Red), 23 Bright Blue (Blue), and 24 Bright Yellow (Yellow). Add 1 White and 26 Black, occasionally 28 Dark Green (Green) and 2 Grey (Light Gray), plus a few transparent colors, and you have effectively the entire color palette of the company’s first 29 years. Great for playful, high-contrast models, but not representative of the real world by any means.

Every color used in the entire Fabuland theme. 'Regular' LEGO System colors are in the top row, and new colors used by Fabuland are in the bottom row. Test bricks from the collection of Ryan Howerter. 

When Fabuland was introduced in 1979, it came with new tones that more effectively represent the natural world: 13 Red Orange (Fabuland Red), 18 Nougat (Flesh), 12 Light Orange Brown (Earth Orange), 19 Light Brown (Fabuland Orange), 4 Brick Red (Fabuland Brown),  and — in later Fabuland waves — 5 Brick Yellow (Tan) and 14 Pastel Green (Fabuland Green). These were used not only for the animal figures’ heads but also for wooden utensils like brooms and tables. 25 Earth Orange (Brown), which had come out the year before in LEGO System sets, was barely used until Fabuland came along.

Fabuland marked a brief period of trying new colors and creating a more well-rounded, natural LEGO palette that we hadn’t seen before, and wouldn’t see again until the late 1990s. These grounding colors served to contrast with the bright red-yellow-blue of Fabuland’s buildings and vehicles, making their vibrance look intentional instead of appearing as concessions of a limited palette.


While some of these new colors (the ones with “Fabuland” in their BrickLink name) were short-lived, and disappeared from the palette as soon as Fabuland ended in 1989 or shortly after, others lasted much longer. 5 Brick Yellow and 18 Nougat even survived the color change of the early 2000s, and are still used in modern sets!

© The LEGO Group

It’s worth noting that some of these colors were developed way back around 1963, even if they weren’t used in actual LEGO sets until Fabuland. They were initially developed for Modulex (a professional architectural modeling system created by Godtfred Kirk Christiansen). Modulex’s “4 Terracotta” became 4 Brick Red, and “5 Buff” became 5 Brick Yellow. When the Modulex palette was updated in 1983, they used some of the new Fabuland colors: 13 Red Orange became Modulex’s “13 Red”, 12 Light Orange Brown became “12 Orange”, and 14 Pastel Green kept its name and ID. Early Danish prototypes exist of both Modulex bricks in primary colors as well as LEGO System bricks in Modulex colors, so it’s hard to say whether the earthy colors or the Modulex System itself were developed first. In any case, this Modulex connection helps explain why Fabuland colors have such low numbers in the LEGO color ID system!


Fabuland Lives On will return soon with a look at the elements introduced in this theme that are still with us today.


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All text is © New Elementary. All images © Ryan Howerter, unless otherwise attributed.

10 comments:

  1. Some colors like Tan or Old Dark Gray were already existing in Lego bricks form in 1968. In fact, these parts were used for Legoland billund Miniland, as we can see on postards from that period. When Legoland Sieksdorf closed, some of the remaining stock of Tan, Dk Gray and Green parts were lost in the wild, so I have some pat.pend. green bricks, and some people have tan and Dk.gray pat.pend. parts. These were still produced in the late 70's, ad there is a big exhibition model of Brussels townhall that used mainly Tan parts, with Dk Gray, in 1980.

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  2. In general I feel like a lot of people who feel like LEGO was vastly different in the 80s than today forget about Fabuland, which was ahead of its time in a lot of ways.

    Fabuland made use of several colors besides the standard ones of the time, had named characters and extensive story-driven media, introduced lots of specialized parts both to make System building less intimidating to a younger audience and to allow for more varied subject matter than basic bricks could allow (let's not forget how Fabuland jail cell doors remained the standard for all System themes well into the late 90s), and even made heavy use of stickers.

    You'd think that compared to Fabuland, AFOLs would be much more accepting of themes like Juniors which use the same figure design and colors as other themes of their time, focus largely on open-ended play rather than "scripted" scenarios, are designed for compatibility with standard System window and door pieces, feature SNOT connections and small elements like plates/tiles that Fabuland more often avoided, and even at their most specialized don't resort to a single piece to represent an entire room or garage!

    But there's something about Fabuland's quaint Richard Scarry aesthetics that helps many AFOLs to see more of a point to its existence, even if they are in denial about there being any other value in having an "intermediate" theme between Duplo and System.

    I suppose I can't blame people for being nostalgic for it… I'm sure I'd have enjoyed Fabuland if it had existed when I was the right age for it. But it foreshadowed a lot of the stuff AFOLs complain about in today's sets/themes more than many tend to admit.

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    1. It's not really the same thing, though. Fabuland did have lots of new colors, but you couldn't really build much with them at the time. As you can see in the pictures, there are Fabuland heads, accessories, a chair, and a fence. No bricks. They've come out with some fancy painted colors...if you don't mind them being restricted to Dwarf helmets and axe blades.

      More importantly, if you bought every theme _but_ Fabuland back then, you would still never have seen most/all of these colors anywhere besides the pages of a catalog. For much of my childhood, the themes I actually got for birthdays and Christmas probably contained no more than nine of the opaque colors: the Mondrian 5, green, light-grey, dark-grey, and brown. And probably not a lot of brown, either.

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    2. Even Dark Grey was pretty rare until somewhere around late 80's-Early 90's, I guess...

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    3. @Håkan S.:
      Yeah, probably. I mostly remember it being the color of arms and armor for Castle, BURPs, LURPs, and Unitron torsos. Eventually it ended up being the color of cannons in Pirates, firearms in Western, sharks and falcons, and minifigs from three of the Aquazone factions. Stingrays even started using it in the models, though there wasn't much variety. I'm really not sure when it started being used as a main component of models, but it wouldn't shock me if it lasted until SW or HP came out in the early 00's.

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    4. The first buildable Dk.Gray parts realeased in sets, besides accesories were 2x6 and 2x8 plates, that were a part of the 12V switches, from 1980. We had to wait until 1991 to have a 1x8 tile (in harbors), and the 90's space themes like Spyrius to give more parts. It's funny, because early 90's prototypes themes were rather extensively using Dk.Gray, like the 9V Inter-City train that already had 1x4x3 train windows and bricks. Same with Grey-Tron, or Castle themes.
      Althrough, there was already Brown 1x2 bricks in 1985, that were used for horses, so there was some building possibilities... as long as you could afford buying sets just to get that single 1x2 brick....

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    5. @Evans:
      Grey-Tron?

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    6. Grey-Tron, I guess it might refer to this prototype. (The image is a bit blurry, though, so it's not crystal clear which exact nuances that are used.)

      https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/lego/images/1/16/Space_Proto2.png

      There's also Another prototype posted, although there, the main color appears to be Sand Purple or Bricklink Purple.

      https://vignette.wikia.nocookie.net/lego/images/4/43/Space_Proto.png

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    7. Seems I guessed right. Grey-Tron (or Greytron, Grey:Tron etc) was apparently a small MOC:ing niche for a while, inspired by that prototype image.

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  3. I spent most of my life thinking that the "original" five colors were the actual original colors, but then I discovered crumble trees. These had brown trunks that were dipped in some sort of solvent and then dipped in unprocessed green resin pellets to add the leaves. And they predated my birth, which means those two colors got cut from the palette at some point. It wasn't until a few years ago that I finally found out what happened. Unfortunately, searching high and low I still can't find the site where I first read this, but I believe it was Godtfred Kirk's wife, Edith, who found inspiration in one of Piet Mondrian's "de Stijl" color block paintings and got her husband to reduce the color scheme to those five famous colors. The twisted irony is that part of the logic behind this move was that it would make the LEGO System look more modern. Kinda blows your mind to think that now building in those same five colors makes your model look antiquated and toylike compared to what can be achieved with the full range of colors that has been expanded since then.

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