12 March 2017

Old Bricks: Brick Yellow & Brick Red

Posted by Admin
Francesco Spreafico returns with another guest post today containing more interesting historical facts about LEGO® colours. Francesco first published this article in Italian on his excellent blog Old Bricks.

About a year and a half ago, Kevin Hinkle of the LEGO® community engagement team told us a bit of trivia he had heard from his colleagues in the Materials and Research & Development department: the reason why the LEGO colour that is commonly called “Tan” is officially called “Brick Yellow”.

The name sounds a bit strange (at least to my Italian ear) because I don't generally associate actual bricks with the colour yellow. Generally I think of bricks as “red” (even though, obviously, they're not actually red). After thinking for a bit, I realized that there are in fact lots of buildings made of “yellow-ish” bricks too. Even though, just like the red ones, they're not actually yellow, they're, basically... tan. I'm not sure if this also happens in English-speaking countries but it sure does, at a certain level, in Italy. I imagine it happens even more commonly in Denmark, and here are some examples I found in Billund.

The name “Brick Yellow” started being used with Modulex bricks (1963); these were smaller bricks produced by TLG with a muted colour palette that were supposed to be used by architects, as professional tools. In future articles I intend to talk extensively about Modulex, but what matters now is that two of these muted colours were called “Brick Yellow” (colour code: 005) and “Brick Red” (colour code: 004). Actually, the real names were in Danish: “Tegl Gul” and “Tegl Rød”, since then English wasn't yet the official language used at TLG.

“Brick Red” is what you would expect, the typical colour of bricks (in a Modulex context today we commonly call this colour “Terracotta”), while “Brick Yellow” is what now is better known in the AFOL world as Tan. Since Modulex bricks were used by architects to design buildings, both colours were concieved to reproduce houses' bricks faithfully.

“Brick Yellow” soon started to spread outside of the Modulex line (and as if it wasn't already complicated enough, in a Modulex context today we call this colour “Buff”) in regular LEGO bricks used internally for statues and LEGOLAND® builds. It has been noticed that Tan was also used in a few composite DUPLO® and Fabuland® parts beginning in 1981. At last, in the 1990s, Tan bricks started being sold to the public in normal sets and today it is probably one of the most popular colours.

“Brick Red” wasn't as lucky, unfortunately. No regular brick was ever produced in this colour (the one you can see in the photo is just a 7xC Bayer prototype) and outside of Modulex it was only used for a few Fabuland pieces and heads as well as a few DUPLO parts, all produced between 1979 and 1991. On BrickLink you can find an almost complete list of these parts (minus the heads). After that, the colour “died" and is still dormant today. Because of its use in the Fabuland theme the colour is now known on BrickLink as “Fabuland Brown”.

If you're eagle-eyed, you'll notice that in the photo the oldest Modulex bricks (the ones on the far left that have “LEGO” on the studs) have a slightly different shade. The other Modulex bricks (with an “M” on the studs) are the same exact colours of the other parts.

Francesco Spreafico first published this article in Italian on Old Bricks.

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  1. Thanks for the interesting trivia article, Francesco. I can assure you, Brick Yellow sounds just as strange to my Anglo ears as it does your Italian ones. To make matters worse, the people working at Lego in the 1960s were using 'brick' to refer to real bricks, whereas we AFOLs use it as a generic term for LEGO bricks, esp. when the TLG gets all trademark-heavy on us. So if you say Brick Yellow, I think of the classic bright Yellow lego shade. I wonder, what do they refer to that as internally? Just yellow, I guess.

    1. Just yellow? No that would be far too easy Rich ;) TLG named it Bright Yellow. Although in fact, every TLG designer I've spoken to says that internally, colours are referred to by their Color ID! So they would call yellow "24". All clear? :D

  2. Actually, in American English, "terracotta" and "brick red" are two very different colors. Typical terracotta items (mostly roof tiles and plant pots) are slightly brighter than the brown above--about half way between that color and the current lego dark orange color.

    "Brick red", meanwhile, is a well-established color, having been in Crayola sets as small as 24 (at least) for decades. It's also a color that actual bricks are frequently found in in the US. It's pretty close to the current Lego dark red, but a bit more muted. The Ghostbusters firehouse is probably using the closest color Lego has to what I think of as the default "brick" color.


    1. Terracotta, for reference: https://www.google.com/search?q=terracotta&espv=2&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjJ0s6PldTSAhUP42MKHSTdDJEQ_AUIBigB&biw=1102&bih=1050

    2. Yeah, I'm looking at the pic with all the Fabuland parts, and even after reading everything down to that point I'm still thinking "that seems really dark for tan". I generally only think of two types of bricks, in the US. Dark-red looks like standard masonry bricks, and the other style is the big, grey cinder blocks that are used for more industrial/foundational purposes.

      But it does highlight an interesting point. Castle builders love the greys because they allow much more "realistic" colors for castle walls than the famous, original Yellow Castle. However, if you actually look up pictures of real European castles, very few of them actually look like one of the various shades of grey. Besides that, you get white, black, _yellow_, tan, rose, and basically whatever other colors of stone happened to be handy to quarry in militarily strategic locations. In the same way, I have actually seen masonry bricks in various shades of tans and browns (and sometimes what look like scorched for black), but I suspect the traditional dark-red ones are achieved through some additive where the other colors may just be the natural result of how the raw materials are sourced.

      On a related note, I noticed in the Chicago area that some of the newly-paved stretches of freeway have a very distinctly red tint to the blacktop, and unlike the little grooves that are not becoming commonplace in newly-paved Michigan freeways, nobody has been able to explain why Chicago's would have that uniform red tint.

    3. The red color comes from iron in the clay. If you use clay from the areas that has a lot of iron in the soil, the iron oxidizes in the burning process and creates the red color. So depending on location there can be more red or more tan bricks used in buildings, because brick is traditionally very localized building material (of course nowdays you can order bricks from where ever you want). Also the burning process affects the color. For example the longer you burn the clay the darker the color usually becomes.

  3. To add my 2 cents - The first storey of my house (in NZ) is covered with bricks that are quite close to the LEGO "Brick Yellow" colour so the name doesn't sound that weird ;-)