Monday 4 June 2018

Interview: British Designer Lee Broom's Celestial Vision

Designer Lee Broom with his new Aurora chandelier at the Observatory exhibition in Milan's Brera district. Portrait for DAM by Elli Ioannou
Lee Broom is one of Britain's top designers with showrooms in London and New York. So far he has won more than twenty awards, including British Designer of the Year and The Queen’s Award for Enterprise. Lee Broom's new Observatory collection is being launched with a trilogy of shows in Milan, New York and London. We spoke to the dynamic designer about what drives and inspires his life and work. Story by Jeanne-Marie Cilento. Additional reporting and portraits by Elli Ioannou

Lee Broom at the
Observatory exhibition in Milan
LIVELY and engaging British designer Lee Broom stands amid the glowing lamps he designed for his evocative new show in Milan. The cool, monochromatic look of his lighting designs for the Observatory collection have a crisp geometry and moon-like celestial gleam that was inspired by the heavens above and with names to match: Eclipse, Orion and Aurora.

"This collection does have a celestial quality to it," Broom says. "It wasn't intentional to start with; I was designing the pieces but not necessarily thinking of a theme just working with shape and things like that. But I visited some friends in the country, in the Cotswold's and it was a beautiful, beautiful clear night and we all went star gazing.

"I hadn't seen stars like that as far as I could remember because I am in the city most of the time. So I think that evening had a subliminal influence on me. When I was looking at the pieces later, I was thinking 'Gosh these to me all really have a stellar quality associated with them'. So I just fully embraced that."

Reflecting on the work that led him to create his own design company ten years ago, Lee Broom says working with fashion icon Vivienne Westwood when he was seventeen years old was one of the most formative experiences of his career. The designer had just won a Young Fashion Designer of the Year award and Westwood gave him the chance to work with her for several days before offering him an internship for nearly a year, working with her in Paris and London. You can see why Westwood saw the potential in the young designer as he still combines an unquenchable enthusiasm for designing with a thoughtful approach that has led him to not only create his own products but have many of them made at his own factory in East London.

"Vivienne Westwood invited me to initially spend a couple of days at her studio but it was actually with her in her office," Lee Broom says in Milan. "After that she offered me a job as an intern for 10 months, working in Paris and London. I think that experience really cemented my wanting to go into design. She influenced me a lot I think. It is a very impressionable age seventeen and eighteen years old and I was soaking it all up like a sponge. That formative year has really stuck with me."

Broom went on to study womenswear at Central Saint Martins and after graduating in 2000 he changed direction and opened an interior design practice for four years with Japanese fellow graduate Maki Aoki. They designed nightclubs, bars and restaurants before Aoki eventually went back to Japan and Broom decided to open his own company. Although he moved from fashion to focus on interior design, the designer still applies a fashion ethos to creating his new collections today.

"Vivienne Westwood offered me a job as an intern for 10 months, working in Paris and London. I think that experience really cemented my wanting to go into design"

The coolly minimalist design of the
Observatory show
"Season after season the look of my collections changes but the overarching house style remains the same," he explains. "Every season we develop the style and it changes and a lot of people say to me 'it's so different from last time' but it feels quite normal for me to do that. I think that does stem from my training in fashion. Fashion influences my work too when I'm designing collections or new products as I'm not scared to develop or expand the style or work with new materials. I think that is more synonymous with fashion and it is what I have done with my own brand of furniture and lighting. I love fashion and I am more inclined to read a fashion magazine than an interiors magazine."

However, Broom’s creative career didn't actually begin in fashion but even earlier as a child when he worked as an actor in many TV shows and theatre productions, including as a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, from the ages of seven to seventeen years old. With this work behind him at a young age, he was able to finance an early move from his family home in the Midlands to London. "I grew up in the Midlands but I've been living in London for more than 25 years and I consider the city my home,'' he says.

"London absolutely influences me all of the time. I love cities and I am a city boy at heart. I like the energy, I like seeing what people are wearing. I love the architecture. I love the galleries ~ just the energy you get from a busy city. We have a showroom in Soho in Manhattan. So I am there every other month and New York has the same feeling."

Today, Lee Broom says his work is still connected to fashion. "I think the whole model of fashion is inspiring ~ how it changes and how fast it is,'' he says. "I like to work really quickly as well. Of course, we are working with products that are going to be sitting in some body's home potentially forever or passed down for generations, so it cannot be as fast as fashion."

"Season after season the look of my collections changes but the overarching house style remains the same. Fashion influences my work when I'm designing as I'm not scared to develop the style or work to with new materials"

The Tidal lamp designed with two
hemispheres, like a gravitational force
 pulling them apart.
However, Broom has made the way of purchasing his new designs much more immediate. Inspired by the see now/buy now movement that upended the fashion world, with pieces seen on the catwalk available to buy straightaway, Broom's new exhibitions of work can also be bought without waiting months for the design prototypes to be manufactured.

"In this industry we understand when we see a sample or a prototype of a product that it won't be available for months or even longer and sometimes not at all," says Broom. "I think for the general public they don't understand that. Why would you publish a design in a magazine of something that doesn't exist yet? I also feel that the production and the manufacturing of a prototype is the majority of the work. It really changes a piece and challenges you to create multiples rather than just one.

"Sometimes the whole manufacturing process can change and that is half the battle of getting a product from A to Z. We've always put our designs into production that we have displayed. But this year I wanted to propel that forward. So what I've presented here in Milan is going to be exactly what you're going to get if you choose to buy one of the pieces." Departing from the traditional design week model of previewing new designs months before they go on sale, products from the Observatory collection are available to purchase immediately from stores and on line so visitors to the show have instant access to them for the first time.

The Orion collection of lighting designs combined
in different formations. Photo: Elli Ioannou
After Broom celebrated the tenth anniversary of his company in 2017, he decided to refocus on lighting for the new collection. Launched in Milan in April, the Observatory range includes four new lighting collections with seven new designs. The galaxy-inspired pieces play with the refraction and reflection of light and with vertical and horizontal proportions. Other pieces are more sculptural and spherical in form.

"The Observatory is probably one of my more commercial collections in a way," Broom says thoughtfully. "But I am not afraid of being commercial because I have a business to run. I like the fact that people buy my products. It is incredibly satisfying that someone would like your work so much that they would part with their hard-earned cash for it. Last year we did a very extravagant exhibition of our ten years and it was all about limited edition designs and really about the brand rather than the products. So this year I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create pieces that people will come in and say 'I would really love to have that in my home'."

"This collection does have a celestial quality to it. I visited some friends in the country, in the Cotswolds, and it was a beautiful clear night and we all went star gazing. I think that evening had a subliminal influence on me"

 The Eclipse lamp is made up of two
intersecting discs
The Observatory collection uses new technology featuring LED lighting systems and bulbs custom-designed and developed in-house and has finishes including polished chrome plus new interpretations of materials used in past collections. The Eclipse collection includes three of the seven new pieces and has a dramatic celestial inspiration with mirror-polished chrome discs that interact and obscure, eclipsing and revealing its illumination to the viewer at the same time. Orion comprises modular tube lights and opaque, polished gold spheres which can be combined both horizontally and vertically to create custom "constellations of light".

"Each of the lighting pieces is inspired by this idea of the celestial bodies and the solar system,"  Broom says. "There is a simplicity to the shapes and silhouettes. There is an element of reflection and refraction and the idea of using lenses and emitting light in an unusual way.

"The Eclipse is made up of two intersecting discs. One is a polished stainless steel disc that acts as a mirror and reflects an LED acrylic disc. So when you look at the light from different angles it changes." The Orion collection is made up of two designs, one a polished gold tube with an illuminated globe while the other one is an illuminated tube with a polished gold sphere. "The idea is you can hang them in many different constellations," says Broom.

Aurora is a chandelier design with a range of diameters that can be altered to create layers of gleaming rings of light created with vertical LED bulbs. While the Tidal lamp is made of a polished chrome and opaque acrylic with two balancing hemispheres that look like they are being pulled apart by gravitational force.

Lee Broom has also launched a new design in the USA this month called Lens Flair, that was exhibited at his Greene Street store in New York's Soho. The spherical light can be a pendant or table lamp and was inspired by telescopic lenses and mixes glass and solid brass.

"I like the fact that people buy my products. It is incredibly satisfying that someone would like your work so much that they would part with their hard-earned cash for it"

Lee Broom believes that lighting is absolutely key in the design of an interior, more important than any other element. "I always found as an interior designer that often people put in lighting as an afterthought rather than the first thing," he says. "For me,it is the most important element of the space in terms of the hue, how it illuminates the space and how it makes you feel. If it is an office it also has to be functional, so its incredibly important.

"I feel that now more than ever decorative lighting is playing a much more important role in all interiors, including very commercial spaces. Gone are the days where you put a light in the centre of the living room and expect that to just illuminate the space. Today, people are looking at decorative lighting as accent lights, as jewellery for the space, not just the main lighting for the space."

 The Orion lamps exhibited in Milan
The designer says when he is first working on creating a design, the process is more instinctive and intuitive than rational. " I think it is more emotional," he says. "When I am initially designing pieces I am not really working with any boundaries whatsoever. I design quite alone and I do a lot of sketching and just visualising of what I want. In the beginning, it is very personal and I am really focused on what I like and then other people come in after that. It has to be authentic, the design represents what you want and what you are into at that time.

"The form and function starts to comes in a little bit later on. I think if I was to approach my design instantly from being practical at the outset I would dilute some of the aesthetics. But I enjoy creating products that are functional. I am a designer not an artist."

During the ten years since Broom founded his own company in 2007, he has created more than 100 furniture, accessory and lighting designs for his own brand. But he has also designed products and interiors for international companies such as Christian Louboutin and Mulberry and last year he created a limited edition collection of Jasperware for Wedgwood. So far he has designed more than 45 commercial retail, restaurant and bar interiors and has his products stocked in more than 250 stores around the world, alongside the flagship showrooms in London and New York.

"When I am initially designing pieces I am not really working with any boundaries. I design quite alone and I do a lot of sketching and just visualising of what I want"

The new Lens Flair lamp launched in New York
at Lee Broom's Soho showroom
Today, Lee Broom says he finds the early part of the design process the most interesting and fulfilling. "I think the initial part, the inception of the idea is one of the most satisfying because it is in your head, it is an exciting moment, you're focused on the future and what will become of it," he explains.

"Then I think seeing the piece for the first time, seeing the prototype ~ actually it can a be a very amazing experience or a very awful experience! I think those two points in the journey are the most exciting.

"The prototype doesn't even have to be finished but it is like getting a sample, a section or a finish and then being able to imagine the rest of it ~ that is incredibly exciting. Because it is like a birth, it is something starting to come to life. I am really lucky to be able to see the ideas that are in my head created in reality. It is a really nice experience. But it is also challenging because you are constantly striving for perfection."

The Observatory exhibition first opened in Milan in April during the Salone del Mobile before travelling to New York in May and Los Angeles this month. The collection can be seen at the London Design Festival in September 2018.

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