What makes his rise even more spectacular is that his journey first started in fashion, where he caught the eye of Vivienne Westwood. After wining competition she scribbled her number down and suggested he come and visit her office for a few days which became an invaluable internship with the fashion icon. “She was incredibly generous with her time,” says Broom, describing his time spent dressing Parisian models and cutting fabrics to the narrative.
He then seamlessly moved into interiors and without any formal training his first project, Nylon, became a multi-award winning cocktail bar. Success soon followed as he took the interiors world by storm. Now an established global name his coveted interior products sell in more than 30 countries with no sign of stopping.
Above: Lee Broom’s latest interior, The Thief, Oslo, Norway.
What advice do you have for others without formal training and what are the benefits?
I think if you are going to get into a career of interior design without formal training the only way you can really do that is to work for yourself. Because if you go round knocking on the doors of design companies unfortunately they won’t accept anybody unless you have certain qualifications, or you can use all the software programs.
Having said that, all of the technical programs that we use in-house for interiors and products can be self-taught. One of the big benefits of not having formal training in a particular field is that when you are at university you are surrounded by lots of people all doing the same thing, all striving for the same goals, and when you are all spat out at the same time and it becomes like a scrum; you either sink or swim. There’s a certain confidence you can lose in all the intense competition and pressure. But if you go into an unknown field there’s an air of ‘well I’m just going to throw myself into this as I have no frame of reference’. That’s a big plus.
So, how did you start out?
It was quite organic. In my final year of fashion studies, I used to go to bars and restaurants giving décor advice and doing bits of upholstery and drapes which eventually turned into ‘will you do a bar for me’. I set up a company with a colleague, Maki Lee, and we did four successful years of bar and hospitality interiors. As time progressed she returned to Japan, and Charles and I then set up Lee Broom.
Above: Crystal Bulb.
Any anxieties about stepping away from fashion and into interiors?
Not really, I always felt like I had enough confidence in my ability and taste as a designer who understands how something should look. I think if you have confidence in that then the rest is the technical and practicalities of how to make it happen. I’ve always been an ‘Ok, yes, let do it’ sort of person, and then work out how to do it later on. I would always try not to pay too much attention to what you think you should be doing; just do what you believe in.
Advice on transitioning from creative genius to entrepreneur?
You have to be multidisciplinary. Even though, at Lee Broom, we were launching a product range when we still did interiors to keep us afloat. We also continually re-invested and without any external investment that was especially difficult when launching in the midst of a financial crisis. And how did you overcome the financial crash? I did think, great, what a time to launch a luxury product brand but my mindset was that if we can get through this we will be even stronger for it. And there is always a market for something. In the recession, there was a general view that people thought everyone would buy everything from Ikea but that wasn’t quite so. If people did buy items they wanted products that would last or have a back story, sometimes there was simply just a preference to support smaller businesses over larger ones.
International sales also helped. We had markets in Middle east, Asia and Australia, which wasn’t affected by the recession, and at one point that was our second biggest selling market. The Middle East but the U.K. is still our biggest market.
I’m not trained in business, interiors or product design but I have a good nose for marketing.
How was new business development at that time?
For us, launching in recession meant we were building a business around the effects of it. And, it wasn’t as if we had a huge database of clients buying luxury furniture beforehand. I’m not trained in business, interiors or product design but I have a good nose for marketing. So, I’ve never been afraid to market myself, or my brand, or product’s narrative. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to manufacture myself because I felt slightly uncomfortable about sending products out to other brands and not having any control over how it would be manufactured and presented. Marketing is something I intuitively understand. In addition Charles was previously a management consultant which has been incredible business training and I’ve been able to work to that philosophy. During the early days, I would be on the phone to him about logistics one minute, talking to someone about the back of a chair the next, and dealing with the press the next. But now e’s here full-time so we’ve been able to formalise and expand our working procedures.
How does British manufacturing work with economies of scale, especially for start-ups?
I think you simply have to start in the UK. For new designers, it’s best to start at home. The main reason for looking to take it abroad is because of larger quantities or to drive the price point down. When you are starting out you are not going to be designing larger quantities, you are going to be doing made-to-order because the costs are a lot cheaper. The other benefits of working in the UK means you can visit the factories easily. Our head of production is always back and forth on the site visits. Above: the Globe, Nouveau Rebel.
It’s interesting we still have a manufacturing industry here which even in our time has changed. When we first started out the factories were busy doing orders of hundreds of thousands, but when the crash happened they had to work out a way of surviving. Designers like myself were coming along saying I need this item but I only need one. It required a shift in thinking for them, and sometimes we even encouraged them to put the price point higher. Not just for the sake of it, but more in the sense that if it meant them agreeing to make just one piece instead of 100 then we’d give it a try.
There were a number of manufacturers who went through that transition and now of course they are making multiple pieces for us. But there is still a real craft here in the UK if you can tap into that it’s a two-way thing. I remember when we wanted to put carpet into a light fitting, and the manufacture’s thought it ‘ridiculous’ but actually over time they saw it was a rather good design.
Related Story: Lee Broom wins Queens Award for Enterprise.
It’s great to keep visiting as we all learn from each other, so in that way starting out with British manufacturing is definitely a good thing.
Above: Lee Broom outside his studio and gallery, Electra House. In 2013 Lee Broom was appointed Ambassador for ACID (Anti-copying in Design), and is a recognised supporter of British manufacturing and techniques.
Thank you Lee for helping others craft and create their own career story.
This YourStoree interview was edited for the web.