You name it, Lee Broom can work with it: marble, Clarks’ most popular footwear design or a bar designed to resemble someone’s living room… He is one of the most exciting name in furniture and lighting design today and he talks to Mark Kebble about how the company came about and what drives him on today
You founded your company back in 2007 Lee – would you say the business has evolved since then?
Yes, massively. When I started we had two people, myself and an assistant. I was working from my flat. Now we have got 17 people working in the company and we have two buildings – Electra House in Shoreditch and a warehouse/factory in Bow where we are making some of the products as well – and obviously financially the company has improved greatly.
Also, the year I started the company was the year before the recession started. It was a little bit worrying to launch something that had designed itself around high end furniture pieces, which had a price tag of £3,000 upwards, which seemed a ridiculous time to launch that kind of business. But I think, like with some other companies like myself, it enabled smaller businesses to really thrive. The recession affected a lot of larger companies with huge overheads, and my overheads were very small – I was working from home, so I was able to build up a brand during that period. If you can build a business and survive a recession, my hope was that out the other end we would really flourish. Touch wood that is what’s happening now.
Did you almost fall into design by accident, or when you went to theatre school was this career always a possibility?
When I was at theatre school, my plan was to have a career in theatre or film or something in that industry. I had already been working in that industry for about 12 years as a child actor, so it was very much set. The change into design came about after winning Young Designer of the Year where Vivienne Westwood judged it and I got to meet her. That introduced me to another potential career, although I did always have a passion for design and drawing. My dad was an artist, he taught me how to draw, and I had a flair for that. In my childhood bedroom the walls were sprawled with a lot of architecture and buildings that I would be creating, I was really into designing homes. I was fascinated by architecture as a kid. Although I didn’t know it then, I guess there were two strands I could have gone down and I happened to go down the design route.
Was Vivienne Westwood central to you formulating what you wanted to do going forward?
She was really crucial. I was 17 when I met her, a very impressionable time and when everybody is at some kind of crossroads. I had spent a lot of time in the theatre industry and she introduced me to another world, not just the discipline of design and fashion design and the career aspects, but the lifestyle aspects of that world as well really appealed to me. It was the pivotal shift that moved me, at the point, into this.
Launching Lee Broom, what did you want to offer?
We talked about my theatre background and training and if you are going to train in that profession, then you have to have a certain amount of self belief, ambition, and drive, it’s kind of drummed into you. That way of thinking has always been there, so my philosophy was whatever I put my mind to, I should be able to achieve the successes that I want to. Even now this feels like only the beginning really, it doesn’t feel like we have anywhere near achieved what we want to. I don’t think that will ever end.
Can you describe the process of forming an idea for a new collection through to completion?
I have an idea of what I want to do. I sketch a lot, so I have lots and lots of sketch books that I am constantly drawing in. I also collate a lot of images as well that I might find on the street, or things that I have found online. I actually have a really good memory for anything that’s visual. I can bank things up and remember them from things way back and then reference them – I have got a terrible memory for people’s names though, anything that’s slightly more academic I suppose I’m not so good! Everything that I do tends to be image-led.
I take those drawings and then visualise them with the design team. We create artist’s impressions of how they would look, but quite realistic ones. Then we change and change and change, and then we start the prototyping process. That’s the most laborious bit I guess. I have a production team who I work with and it’s their job to facilitate, making all the pieces. We get samples and we look through and eventually we get a product. It’s usually quite a long process. I have to say the quickest product was the Crystal Bulb – I created and designed that, and eight weeks later we had the first production run, which is insanely quick, but that’s quite rare. Other products can between six months and two years, it just depends. When I first started I used to design four collections, now what we do is we have a pool of products, around 50 at a time that we are working on, and they are all going through some point in that process. When we got to the point when we are going to release a collection, we kind of pick out which ones work and we might re-design a few others and pull them in. As the company gets bigger, the process gets more formulated, it’s less ad-hoc, which is good.
How important was it for you to open Electra House as showroom?
Very important. Although we have a lot of dealers who sell our products around the world, we have about 150 now, they are not all going to have a huge display of our products. For me it’s not just about the product, it’s about an understanding of the brand and who I am and the experience you get when you step into our world. The only way you can do that is to create your own environment. It has helped us I think for people to really understand who we are. It’s kind of helped from a business sense as well. It’s more common in fashion to open a flagship store, but less so common in products. That’s another reason I wanted to do it… It’s been great, really successful for us.
Looking at what’s happened recently, what has the response to Nouveau Rebel been like?
Really good. I didn’t think how it would necessarily have been received when we designed it, but it has been great. People really appreciate the craftsmanship on the pieces, which I think is a really important thing. We really, really struggled with the manufacturers to get what we wanted and we really had to push, and push their techniques to create some of the pieces and do things in marble that hadn’t been done in that way before. I think people realise that when they see it, which is great.
We had the same challenges for instance when we did the carpet pieces years ago. When people see images of those they don’t realise it’s carpet. With the Nouveau Rebel pieces people understand, particularly when they see the Tube light, that it’s a solid marble piece. I am really happy with it.
We try and change materials that we work with as often as we can. It’s not like I sit down and think ‘what do I need to work in?’, it’s more organic, it’s whatever I am into at that point. I know that other designers have been working in marble a bit as well, and I like it’s texture and sculptural quality, and it’s a really historical material. It dates back as far as you can remember.
You have also designed the restaurant/bar space Old Tom & English – what was the idea behind that?
I wanted to create a space where it felt like you were going into someone’s home. There were certain rules for a bar, but I wanted it to be homely and very welcoming, but also a lot more modern than anything I have created before. There are still some nods to the 60s – entertaining at home in the 60s was hugely popular – but I wanted to create that alongside a contemporary look.
The design does integrate some of your collection classics. Which design, for you, changed everything?
The Crystal Bulb. Previous to that my collections were known within the design industry. It’s a far more aspirational thing buying furniture for your home than fashion, which is a necessity. That enabled me to step out of just design circles and go into the public consciousness.
Finally Lee, what’s to come?
There are lots. In terms of shows, we only do Milan in April and the London Design Festival in September. For Milan we are currently producing a collection for that. It’s our biggest collection so far, featuring 20-25 new pieces. There’s some furniture, lighting and accessories, a real mix. We have been working on the collection for 18 months.
I am also doing a collaboration and a separate collection that I can’t talk about the moment! But I am collaborating with Clarks on designing and reworking the Desert Boot. They have commissioned a group of artists and designers to create their version of the Desert Boot and a piece of artwork too. I am doing a Mods & Rockers Boot – the Desert Boot was popular with the Mods, so I have combined the two.
Electra House, 95 Rivington Street EC2A 3AY; 020 7820 0742; leebroom.com