Lee Broom, the "enfant prodige" of fashion and design

The spearhead of British product design, and one of the most prolific and awarded designers in his generation, Lee Broom actually started acting at 17 but quickly shifted to fashion, following his passion by enrolling in the prestigious Central Saint Martin. Meeting Vivienne Westwood, and starting to work with her, was the turning point in his life: it is from Westwood that he learned to appreciate retro aesthetics and fine craftsmanship. Lee began his career in interior decor by designing fashionable London spots, finally coming to product design. “The Guardian” claims “Young designer Lee Broom is to furniture what Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford are to fashion”. And today, he has a namesake brand, a portfolio of top clients – such as Selfridges, Christian Louboutin and Harrods – and over twenty awards, including an ELLE Decoration British Design Award, a Queen’s Award for Enterprise, a Courvoisier Future 500 Award and four British Design Awards.
We had the chance to talk to him, and here is what he told us...

You have worked for International brands such as Christian Louboutin and Mulberry. What do you remember about these collaborations?
I was commissioned by Christian Louboutin to design his new store at Harrods, London in May 2013.  Continuing the trend of other Christian Louboutin stores, I drew my inspiration for the interior from the city in which the store is located. As such I referenced the London landscape throughout the space. The shop within a shop sat within the eveningwear department at Harrods, and had a beautiful white, fanned archway entrance reminiscent of the Covent Garden Opera House. The space featured signature pieces from my collections including the Salon range, re-worked in patterned materials and new colors. In the VIP area I added a low-seated lounge area and a dramatic red tiled wall – a signature color for the brand – alongside our Lee Broom Crystal Bulbs. I think the concept was elegant and really captured the spirit of Louboutin.
With Mulberry it was a very different way of working, creating bespoke light fixtures for the role out of their new stores, taking inspiration from the materials in their collections.

How did you start working with Vivienne Westwood?
As a child I loved design and my dad was an artist so I was always sketching and drawing when I was younger. I particularly liked architecture and fashion. When I was 17, I entered a fashion competition called The Young Designer of The Year, which was judged by Vivienne Westwood – and I won. This then led to me to working for her in London and Paris for around 10 months. It was a defining moment and one that has stuck with me through my career. I learned so much from working at Westwood. 


What did you learn working with her?
Vivienne showed me how she was influenced by tailoring and pattern cutting from centuries past, and how we can learn from techniques of the past and make them relevant for the modern day. That is something that has definitely filtered down into what I do now as a product designer, in that I have looked to traditional manufacturing techniques, craft techniques, and stylistic things from the past and reshape them for now.


Where do you draw your inspiration from?
It is difficult to pinpoint one particular thing, as I am inspired by lots of things. I have a photographic memory for anything visual, so if I see something interesting I store it away in my memory and then tap into it later on. I pick up inspiration all the time, just by walking around the city, traveling the world, seeing architecture, going to galleries or even visiting factories where I make my products.
I think the crossover between my different design disciplines, and my theatre background in particular, has a subconscious influence on my work, especially when it comes to our exhibitions. I’m still very passionate about fashion too, even though I am no longer in that industry; I like looking at what people are wearing. I’m also inspired by materials and manufacturing techniques and how I can utilize the traditional in new and innovative ways, striking the balance between modernism and nostalgia, re-imagining silhouettes and playing with form and shape. If I was looking at a particular era, then I would say Art Deco. For me Art Deco has both a modernist and classical aesthetic which is rather timeless – a lot of Art deco designs still look as modern today as they did in the 1920s: it was a revolutionary time in modern design. You can often see a sprinkle of Art Deco influence in a lot of my pieces, particularly my lighting.

The Guardian once commented, “Lee Broom is to furniture what Marc Jacobs or Tom Ford are to fashion”. What do you think about that?
I think it’s a great compliment. Both Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford are pioneers in their field, and with very distinctive styles. As a designer I don't create products with the mindset to receive accolades or praise; however, it is always nice when somebody appreciates your work. 


Our platform focuses on trend forecasting. Can you please tell us some trends that will remain in vogue in interior design for the next two or three years?
I think we are at a point in time where the restrictions of trends are becoming more and more blurred. We are currently seeing a mix of minimalist and maximalist styles, both being relevant in contemporary interiors – and this is a great thing for someone like myself who appreciates both styles. More specifically, and especially in lighting, we have seen metallic colors continue as a trend, with the use of brass or copper in particular. We are now seeing these materials even used in architecture as an alternative to stainless steel, which means it’s going to be here to stay for a few more years for sure. 

What is your idea of “luxury interiors”?
Luxury interiors to me means elevating the norm. Taking what we are already used to and exposed to, to another level. That may be in the way it has been produced – its craftsmanship or the materials that have been used or its overall aesthetic. The idea that luxury is about excess and bling especially in interiors is completely dated.


You are considered a child star in design. What was the turning point in you career?
We designed and produced the Crystal Bulb for our 2012 show at Milan’s Design Week. Up until the Crystal Bulb, I was relatively known in the design industry – but this piece caught the attention of a wider public. It was definitely a watershed moment in my career.
The idea actually came to me in a dream, and it has become the product we are most synonymous for. Since it launched we have sold over 30,000 to date: illuminating homes, restaurants, hotels and bars across the world. We were lucky enough to win four awards in three consecutive years for the Crystal Bulb in the British Design Awards, and it now hangs in the London Design Museum’s permanent collection. I wanted to create a design that was more affordable than some of the pieces I had released at the time, yet with no compromise on its quality or craftsmanship. I think we achieved that: it’s the most affordable Lee Broom product in our range but the most expensive light bulb you will probably ever buy. 


You studied fashion, but then chose design. What happened?
I studied fashion design at Central Saint Martins, which I loved. My plan became to start my own clothing line once I graduated; however, living and studying in London is expensive, and so to support myself I would offer decor advice for a number of independent bars and nightclubs across London, which cemented an organic move into interiors. I used to make mirror frames and curtains and upholstery and this soon turned into a small business.
Just after graduation in 2000, I was commissioned along with my friend and colleague from Central St Martins, Maki Aoki, to work on a 9-month-long project for the design of what was to become London’s Nylon bar. After the project was nominated for the Evening Standard Bar of the Year Award, we set up an interior design practice called Makilee Design, which created interiors for independent bars, clubs and restaurants across London. We did this very successfully for around four years. After Maki moved back to Japan, I decided to launch a furniture and lighting brand under my own name in 2007. I launched my first collection, Neo Neon, in September 2007 at the London Design Festival.
I have always loved design – be it art, fashion or product design. I create because I love it. I have always sketched, even as a child. There is barely a day where I don’t pick up a pencil, even just for the fun of it.

What are the differences between the worlds of fashion and design, in terms of creative process?
When I studied fashion at Central Saint Martins, the primary thing they taught me was how to think like a designer – about research, sketching an idea, creating a prototype, making a sample, and putting it into production. I learnt that it’s the process which is important, whether you are creating a jacket or a chair, the process for me is the same. 


Do you have a favorite material or fabric, when you design interiors?
I really enjoy working with marble. It is a very natural material and no two pieces are the same, similar to wood in that respect. I love how the veins of Carrara marble can dictate how the final pieces will look, and how each piece is unique. It is also challenging, and you can really push it as a material. When we created the Marble Tube light for example, which requires marble to be milled down to a 5mm thickness, we were told it couldn’t be done – but persistence paid off.  


Can you describe your home’s interiors?
I live in a converted fire station so there are a lot of industrial architectural details to my home, which I love. I would say it is very much the embodiment of me as a designer. I have a lot of my own designs in the space, but I also have a number of mid-century pieces.  It has a very modern layout with lots of stairs and different levels. It has a central atrium that all the other rooms in my house lead to, and which provides lots of natural light through a central skylight. Whenever I have new pieces or prototypes, they will often be brought into this space for me to try out, so it’s always evolving.


You presented “The Time Machine” at Ventura Lambrate’s Fuorisalone during the Milan Design Week. And you studied theater. Do you think there is a sort of theatrical vision in your work?
Absolutely. I was a professional child actor until I was 17, and my theatre background has definitely had a subconscious influence on my work, especially when it comes to exhibitions. I always try to do something theatrical and immersive because the idea of theatricality is ingrained in me. I want to create an engaging and memorable experience for people, taking them on a journey by seamlessly combining design, drama, movement and lighting in a surreal and unexpected way.

Is there a designer that you admire or you draw inspiration from?
I was a huge fan of Alexander McQueen. He didn’t just create fashion, he created art – his work was theatrical and immersive which are two elements I always try to embody in my own work.


What kind of advice would you give to young designers?
I think different disciplines in design are more integrated now than they were when I started. Art, fashion, design and architecture all seem to cross over a little more than they did ten years ago, which I feel is a positive step. I would encourage young designers to experiment with different sectors as much as possible.
When you start out it is hard to be creative and make money from just one discipline. When I started Lee Broom, on top of products I was also creating interiors, which funded the product collections.
You have to be savvy and smart and seize opportunity where you can. But always keep your eye on the final prize. 

Interview by Barbara Palladino

© Lee Broom


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