I meet British designer Lee Broom in September, precisely one week before the opening of his first standalone retail space. He is very excited; nothing announces a brand’s arrival on the international design scene quite as clearly as a flagship store.
And what a store it is. Set in the heart of Shoreditch, one of London’s hippest districts, Electra House is part gallery and part a surreal remaking of an old curiosity shop (the building has form, too, as its name is a reference to the fact that it once housed the electroplating equipment used to make some of Le Corbusier’s sofas). The walls, painted in Broom’s signature grey-and-white palette, provide a discreetly upscale backdrop for pieces from all five of his main collections of furniture, lighting and accessories, many of which are caught beneath supersized bell jars or encased in rotating glass cabinets. On the day I visit, his new Quilt armchair (£2,595) – an invitingly curvaceous piece inspired by the quilting process used for classic Chanel and Christian Dior luggage, and designed as part of a collaboration with Heal’s – is displayed inside a gigantic glass dome mounted on a plinth, while two of his Fulcrum crystal candlesticks (from £245 each) are slowly rotating inside a glass case in a witty homage to the jewellery counters of 1970s department stores. Glamorous, contemporary and unmistakably British, this 600sq ft space is a pitch-perfect visualisation of the Lee Broom brand.
Broom, who was born in Birmingham in 1976, graduated from Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design with a degree in fashion in 2000 and spent the next seven years designing bar interiors. He certainly turned heads, but when he launched his eponymous interiors label in September 2007, he was little known outside the industry. Today, he has tfive collections to his name – as well as 40 retail, restaurant and bar interiors and over 20 awards, including the British Design Awards’ Designer of the Year 2011 – and his company turnover has grown about 70 per cent for each of the past two years, a growth that is primarily product-led; turnover for 2013/14 is expected to be £1.7m.
Standing in his sparkling new store, surrounded by his creations, Broom, a slightly built figure who looks younger than his 37 years, seems comfortable with his incipient superstar status. His rise is often described as “meteoric”, and he admits that the store has come sooner than he’d anticipated (the landlord was so keen to stop the company moving to other premises that he allowed Broom to knock through from the existing design studio into the two-storey building next door, an expansion that has made room for a retail space and a consultancy area). But his success comes as no surprise. “I went to theatre school when I was growing up,” he says (he was a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company from the ages of 11 to 16), “so ambition and drive were drummed into me from early on. The same ambition and drive are now channelled into a desire to make beautiful products that are different from those that other people make.”
It’s a disarmingly simple explanation, but it pinpoints the reason why his brand has triumphed. Broom works hard, is a self‑confessed perfectionist and designs products that are both unique and familiar – products we haven’t seen before but that are somehow in tune with the zeitgeist. His first two collections, the inaugural Neo Neon and 2008’s Rough Diamond, for example, saw him mixing traditional furniture with neon lights, a look that tapped into the UK’s desire for reworked vintage but that gave it a brand new, high-fashion and highly sophisticated edge, while the elaborately decorative Carpetry sideboard (£12,500) and pendant light (£2,950) from his 2009 Heritage Boy collection rode the crest of a wave of illustrated furniture. Inspired by Persian Nain rugs, the woven pictures of Tudor roses, sceptres and crowns with which they are adorned give them a witty British twist. And none of these designs has dated. Upcycling may have gone mass market, but his White On Bistro chair (£3,750, designed for Heal’s) – a second version of his six-year-old Bright On Bistro chair (a bentwood chair that he outlined in delicate coloured neon) – looks every bit as contemporary sitting beneath its outsized glass dome at the back of the new store as the original did when it was launched.
The early collections brought him acclaim from within the design world, but it was the launch of the Crystal Bulb in 2012 that set him on the way towards becoming a household name. A hand-blown lead-crystal light in the shape of a traditional bulb that could be screwed into any standard ceiling, wall or lamp fitting, the Crystal Bulb is both retro and modern, nostalgic and new. At £109, it is also immensely affordable. “Its invention really was one of those light-bulb moments,” Broom says. “We’d had a sample sale at the studio, which was the first time we’d sold directly to the public, and people kept asking for something small that was easy to install. That night I dreamt about this bulb, and when I woke up I sketched it out and showed it to Charles [Rudgard, the brand’s commercial director and Broom’s long-time partner]. He loved it.” Eight weeks later, the Crystal Bulb was lighting up his stand at the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan. To date, the company has sold in excess of 10,000 bulbs and they can be seen illuminating restaurants, hotels and bars across the world.
Broom is rightly proud of the Crystal Bulb (and of the fact that it played a major role in reversing the fortunes of Cumbria Crystal, Britain’s last remaining producer of full lead crystal) and he’s savvy enough to know that having a product people can walk in off the street and buy is essential to a brand’s success. The Crystal Bulb is his equivalent of a luxury fashion house’s eau de toilette or lipstick line – and like every great fashion label, he launched a new take on the classic for autumn/winter 2013: a Crystal Bulb pendant (£189) and table light (£220) with a walnut finish. “I’m remixing my own hits,” he says.
But while Broom recognises the commercial importance of the Crystal Bulb, he doesn’t want it to become his defining product. “When people hear my name, I don’t want them just to think of the Crystal Bulb. In fact, I don’t want them to think of any particular piece – I want them to think of a whole experience.”
Broom may have left the theatre long ago, but he is a showman at heart. The meeting room at Electra House is a stage-set English saloon complete with stuck-on wood-panel walls; the shop floor has oversized fittings and moving parts as props; and his annual exhibitions at the Salone and the London Design Festival have all the pizzazz of a fashion show. His inaugural solo exhibition in Milan, for example, saw him create a traditional oak-panelled British pub as a backdrop for his furniture collections, and for the 2012 London Design Festival he turned the studio into an old-fashioned general store, complete with sawdust floor.
“When we launched the company, Charles and I decided that we would concentrate more on products than interior-design projects, but now that I’m more popular, we can easily do both. I enjoy doing interiors because you get the whole picture.”
One of his most recent interiors projects was for French shoe designer Christian Louboutin. The Harrods concession opened last May and, in true Lee Broom style, manages to capture the essence of the Louboutin brand and give it a quintessentially British twist. The white fanned archway entrance is reminiscent of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, trios of classic London street lamps with frosted acorn shades stand in the centre of the space, and the walls are lined with twice-fired petrol-blue tiles made by the factories that create the tiles for London Underground.
Broom’s Britishness is central to the brand, both aesthetically and from a manufacturing point of view. “I’m really passionate about promoting British craftspeople,” he says. “I started having things made in the UK because with the first collections everything was made to order, so I needed to visit the factories. Seeing products being created opened my mind to all the crafts and trades that still exist in this country. Now I always start my search for a manufacturer in Britain and only go outside if I can’t find anyone here.” The Crystal Bulb collection recently fell into the outside category, a victim of its own success (the glass is now produced in the Czech Republic), but 80 per cent of Lee Broom products are still made in the UK. The 2011 Salon sofa (from £3,950) – a dramatic mix of 1930s glamour and punk-rock couture, with edges outlined in faceted gold or gunmetal studs – is a celebration of traditional British upholstery techniques.
The brand may be thoroughly British, but its appeal is increasingly international. In fact, in the last financial year, only 30 per cent of sales were in the UK, with 40 per cent in the EU, 10 per cent in the US and 20 per cent across the rest of the world. Australia and Scandinavia proved to be strong markets in 2012, particularly for the Crystal Bulb. “Until lately the strategy has been to take on dealers as they’ve approached us,” explains Rudgard, “but we now have a sales team, so we’re going to take a more proactive approach – but it will be an orderly expansion. We don’t want to get caught up in our own success.”
Rudgard sounds cautious, but the pair have huge plans for the brand. Asked where he thinks the crown and broom logo will be in another five years’ time, Broom laughs. “Wow. There are lots of things I want to design – a hotel, a pop concert. A concert would combine lots of the things I do – theatre, lighting, furniture.” Rudgard agrees. “Lee can design anything, from a car to a cigarette lighter, so there’s lots of opportunity. Basically, we’ll take any route that’s interesting.”
But for now the focus is on Electra House. A week before the launch party last September, Broom admitted to feeling rather nervous about how his new project would be received. Four months on, the nerves have gone. Electra House is busy; weekdays see it filled with international design professionals, while at the weekends it positively hums with Shoreditch’s most style-savvy folk. Sales of Half Cut glassware and Decanterlights (£595) have been so strong that they are currently sold out. “It’s really nice to see people leaving the shop clutching our Lee Broom bags,” he says of the chic signature-grey shoppers given away with purchases. And then corrects himself. “I mean store. Electra House is most definitely not a shop.” Broom’s mouth may be smiling, but his eyes say it all. Shops are for small fry. Internationally acclaimed super-designers like him have stores.