As he hits his 10th anniversary landmark show, we chatted to designer Lee Broom about the items he couldn’t live without, his favourite local Shoreditch spots and how it feels to celebrate a decade in design
Interview Hannah Hopkins
You studied theatre and fashion. How did you come to be involved in the world of furniture and product design?
I trained as an actor and was a professional child actor until I was 17 so my original career path wasn’t in design at all. As a child I loved design and my dad was an artist so I was always sketching and drawing when I was younger. I particularly liked architecture and fashion. When I was 17 I entered a fashion competition called The Young Designer of The Year. Vivienne Westwood was the judge and I won. This led me to work for her in London and Paris for 10 months. She made techniques of the past relevant for the modern day. After that I studied at Central St Martins. To help support myself I set up a small business providing décor advice for independent bars and nightclubs across London. This cemented an organic move into interiors. I realised product and interior design was something I loved.
How did you come to start your company and what was it like in the early days?
After I graduated in 2000, I with a friend and colleague from Central St Martins, Maki Aoki, started to work on a 9-month long project. This design was to become London bar ‘Nylon’. The project was nominated for the Evening Standard Bar of the Year Award. We set up an interior design practice called Makilee Design. It created interiors for independent bars, clubs and restaurants across London. We did this for around four years. I had always had plans to launch my own label focusing on furniture and lighting. After Maki moved back to Japan, I launched the brand under my own name in 2007. I applied for a Princes Trust grant to help get my business started. It made me think about a business plan and strategy. It helped me to start the business on the best possible footing. I worked out of my apartment near Portobello Road at the time. I launched my first collection ‘Neo Neon’ in September 2007 at the London Design Festival.
What’s been your favourite project to work on and why?
My recent collaboration with Wedgwood was an interesting project to work on. Wedgwood contacted me. They asked if I would be interested in designing a collection. The idea was for me to create a prestige range of limited edition vases using their iconic Jasperware. Jasperware isn’t something that has been done by many designers over the years. So I was excited at the prospect of creating my own interpretation of something we all know so well. I spent many days in the Wedgwood archive and visited the factory in Stoke on Trent. It was fascinating working with the team to understand the meticulous processes and craftsmanship involved in making the pieces. It is wonderful to be a part of their history.
You’ve got quite a different aesthetic to a lot of your contemporaries. What would you say your key influences are?
Post-modernism would be a key influence. Art Deco also.
Where do you find inspiration for new designs?
Inspirations tend to come from anywhere, especially when living in a city such as London. I’m a city boy so find a lot of inspiration when I visit cities across the world. A great source of inspiration comes from various galleries, exhibitions or fashion magazines. But I also find walking around inspires me – taking in the architecture, soaking up the street. My brain works visually so if I see something interesting I store it away in my memory and then tap into it later on. The crossover between my different design disciplines, my theatre background in particular, has a subconscious influence on my work. Especially when it comes to our exhibitions. I’m still passionate about fashion too. Even though I am no longer in that industry and I like looking at what people are wearing. I’m also inspired by materials and manufacturing techniques and how I can utilise the traditional in new and innovative ways. Striking the balance between modernism and nostalgia, re-imagining silhouettes and playing with form and shape.
Do you have a set process or specific methods for bringing a design to life? Are there particular materials or colours that you like to work with?
I sketch a lot and collate images all of the time. I’m never without my sketchbook. So I have a library of designs which I then develop together with my design and production teams. Each aspect and development stage of creating a product gives me the opportunity to constantly evolve. We’re always experimenting with new materials and new styles in the studio. Which also makes it exciting for people who like my work, they never know what to expect next.
If you could have the opportunity to work with someone from any period, across any industry, who would it be and why?
It would have been great to be part of the art scene in New York in the late seventies, early eighties. Warhol, Keith Haring and Basquiat. It was a very raw time in New York City and very creative too.
What’s your favourite part of the job? And your least favourite?
It is wonderful to collaborate with craftspeople who have been working with their material for decades. We try and push the capabilities of the craftspeople and their machinery as much as we can whilst learning all about their intricate craft. So in return, the craftspeople also end up learning from us. It is a great relationship and one of my favourite parts of the job. But my least favourite part is dealing with the less creative aspects of running a business such as finance and budgets.
Which three items could you not live without?
My iPhone, sketch book and pencil.
What advice would give someone just starting out in design?
I think different disciplines in design are more integrated now than they were when I started out ten years ago. Art, fashion, design, architecture all seems to cross over a little more than 10 years ago which I feel is a positive step. So my advice would be to remain diverse and not to stay within your comfort zone.
What’s your favourite colour?
Black and white is a very classic combination but also very modern. It works with any colour palette and brings a sense of edge to a space.
What are your local Shoreditch favourites? Bars, shops etc?
The Ace hotel and Hoi Polloi for dinner or brunch is great. SCP is just around the corner from our studio. Its been here for such a long time. It always has a brilliantly curated range of product from furniture to ceramics to lighting. Fix 126 Coffee on the corner of Rivington Street is a staple for my caffeine fix and LN-CC in Dalston is a store I love to visit.
Is there anything you haven’t achieved professionally yet that you want to tick off? What is your next goal?
I’d love to design a hotel; I think it would encompass a lot of disciplines from my background. I’d also love to design a pop concert or theatrical production, that would be cool. We have grown rapidly as a brand over the past ten years however, there is still so much we would like to achieve and there is a lot more I would like to create as a designer. I still always feel like we have only just begun.