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6 minute read

Making It

How A Former Child Actor Became One Of Britain's Top Design Exports

Lee Broom's fiercely independent creative career stretches from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the studio of Vivienne Westwood.

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Many people would be shy about approaching a celebrity for an autograph, but for Lee Broom it turned out to be one of those made-for-Hollywood moments. When he was 17, Broom won a fashion-design competition that Vivienne Westwood judged, and at the awards ceremony he got the opportunity of a lifetime. "I asked for her autograph—and I wasn't necessarily after a job—and she wrote her phone number down and said, 'Why don't you come to the studio for a couple of days and you can spend time with me, and I can show you how things work?'" Broom says. "She was incredibly generous."

A London-based furniture and interiors designer, Broom opened his studio in 2007 and has steadily earned a loyal following—not to mention award after award. One of the United Kingdom's greatest design exports, Broom is represented in more than 150 stores—like the tastemaking retailers the Future Perfect, the Conran Shop, Twentieth, and Merci—in 45 countries worldwide. In May, he's set to open a pop-up shop in New York, establishing a stronger presence stateside for his brand of process-driven, historically inspired design.

Arriving to this point in his career wasn't a clear-cut path. Broom, who turns 40 this year, got his start as a child actor and worked in film, television, and commercials from when he was 6 years old to about 17. He attended theater school, was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and figured he'd continue on that path until he got bitten by the fashion bug, created a collection, and entered the competition that would eventually lead to a serendipitous meeting with Westwood.

"I was just with her in her studio the whole time and she was talking about her processes, how she's influenced by the history of art, how she's influenced by tailoring and pattern cutting from centuries past, and how we can learn from techniques of the past and bring them to the modern day rather than being influenced by modern day," Broom says.

What began as a two-day studio visit with the doyenne of British design turned into a 10-month-long apprenticeship. Afterward, Broom enrolled in the prestigious London art school Central Saint Martins and studied fashion. The plan from then on was to start his own apparel label. But soon he changed course again: Broom would go around to bars and restaurants and ask them if they needed interior design advice. He would make curtains and cushions for them, and that turned into a full-fledged business. Then, he started to make bespoke furniture and products for clients before eventually expanding into production pieces.

Fashion and furniture seem to come from opposite ends of the design spectrum. Conceptually, the former is ephemeral, the latter is permanent. They deal with an entirely different material palette and employ different fabrication techniques. However, Broom sees them as different mediums to explore his creative perspective. It's about research, sketching an idea, creating a prototype, making a sample, and putting it into production.

"Central Saint Martins was an incredibly creative university, and they didn't teach you how to sew, to pattern cut, the techniques—they taught you how to think like a designer," Broom says. "I didn't know how to make clothes when I first went to Saint Martins, and I didn't know how to make furniture when I first became a product designer, but now I do. It's the process that's the important thing."

Broom applies a Westwoodian approach to his product designs. "I think [working with her] has filtered down to 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 reshaped them for now," he says.

Moreover, Broom likes to experiment with new materials in the way that fashion designers come up with new looks seasonally. "Just because we've mastered the craft of using crystal, I don't want to keep doing that for the next decade," he says. "We could probably do it and sell lots, but it's about continuing and developing as a designer in the public eye and people seeing. It makes it more interesting for fans of the brand and our clients to see that."

His latest lighting collection, which he debuted in the back of a delivery truck for his roving Milan Design Week exhibition aptly named Salone del Automobile, is based on an art deco globe light silhouette. His Crystal bulb—the product that became an instant hit and garnered a lot of publicity when it was launched in 2012—nods to traditional glass cutting, and he worked with the artisanal British manufacturer Cumbria Crystal to fabricate the design. Debuted in 2015 as part of his blockbuster Department Store installation that transformed old storefronts into a Kubrick-esque retail fantasy, his Drunken table, Altar chair, and Acid Marble lamp—only three of 25 new items unveiled—all nod to 1980s postmodernism.

Rather than collaborating with big design brands, Broom keeps everything in-house and says that is why he's been able to stay laser focused on his own vision. "I've always worked for myself my whole life," he says. "I think one of the reasons why we design and produce our own pieces rather than just collaborating with bigger brands is that I like the idea of having my own brand, having control over all the different processes, and control over my vision as a designer. When you're designing for other people you kind of lose a little bit of that. It goes into the hands of somebody else, essentially. That's why I'm able to do these weird and wonderful presentations."

Broom creates for himself first, which lends an artistic characteristic to the work. His pieces aren't workhorses for offices—they're more akin to sculptural totems, regardless if they operate perfectly as a lamp or a chair or a credenza. "I design more from an emotional space rather than a practical or functional space," he says. "The practicality and function come in at a later point once I've got the kind of vision that I want to create. I try not to focus on what people want or what people are asking me to design so much because I didn't start out in that way. When I started the company, my idea was I'm going to do this collection, I don't care what anybody thinks—if it only happens once, then it's a folly. It's fine."

Having said that, Broom is aware of the business reality: A designer has to sell products to keep afloat. "My business partner will say to me, 'You could do another lamp,' or 'that's selling really well,' or that's popular,'" he says. After coming up with a collection, he thinks about what pieces might be suitable for production in the thousands (i.e., they have potential to be popular retail items), what should be produced in a limited run of about 10 or 20 pieces, and what is more of a made-to-order design.

While Westwood and studying at Central Saint Martins helped Broom to find his creative rhythm, he credits a mentorship he received through the Prince's Trust with giving him practical and valuable lessons in how to run a design business. "It's one thing designing something, but having the balls to put it out there and have people judge you as a designer is very, very different," Broom says. "To put a value on what you do financially is also hard. It takes practice. But having mentors, having people who understand that, who can say you're underselling yourself, you should value that higher, I think is really important."

The designer typically has about 40 or 50 projects in the works at a single time, all at various stages of development. Broom alluded to exploring new materials, patterns, and asymmetrical silhouettes with the pieces on the boards, though he wouldn't share more specifics. When they do eventually make their big reveal, we're certain they'll be wholly Broom's "own thing," unexpected, and delightful in equal measure.

All Images (unless otherwise noted): via leebroom.com

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Marcus Tondo; 02 / Marcus Tondo; 03 / Marcus Tondo; 04 / Marcus Tondo;

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