British designer Lee Broom exploded on the scene five years ago with his now-iconic cut crystal exposed lightbulbs—a modern application for a very traditional material. Since then, he's been subverting material expectations while tackling dozens of interior design projects, while building his own retail distribution channel. For 2014, Broom has introduced a new collection, Nouveau Rebel, that pushes the boundaries of another classic material: marble. The collection of lighting and tableware makes its debut at The Future Perfect in November; we sat down with Broom in the shop's NoHo showroom to talk about the line.
Dwell: How does this marble collection relate to your past work, especially the cut crystal you're known for?
Lee Broom: We try as a studio—and I try as a designer—once we’ve mastered a material, don’t continue to flog it. Move on to something else. We might continue to do something in crystal, but then it would be a very different way of using it. We combined crystal with marble because I wanted to show the juxtaposition between something very, very heavy and something very, very light. Also, I love the way that marble feels and, unless it’s a coffee table, you don’t have much interaction with it as a functional object. It was nice to create a glassware collection where you can hold the marble.
Dwell: Marble is so tactile, but you’re right, it's so often removed from everyday life. Like when it's lining the wall of a lobby.
Broom: And it's classically used in sculpture—an art piece, not to be touched. I wanted to make it more usable, then combine it with another material to emphasize its heaviness. And the idea, in working with the factory, was to try and do some pieces in marble that we hadn’t really explored so much, particularly lighting that works from a functional aspect as well. For instance, the marble tube lights.
Dwell: Which are unbelievable. What's the process? What's the thickness of the marble tube?
Broom: They’re quite bright; you really have to dim them down. We put them in a restaurant design we did recently for Old Tom and English [in London's SoHo]. I think marble lighting, historically, has always been a background lighting piece because it’s difficult to get it so thin. Ours is just under a quarter of an inch. For the tube lights, we were told by the artisans who make them that that this is as far as one can go in terms of length. One guy who works in the factory in Florence is able to get it down to that tolerance and create the lens and tube as well. The solid piece of marble is milled to a quarter of an inch thick and then polished, because when it comes out it has rings around it. The breakages happen with the hand polishing. So we have a really good polisher who manages to maintain its structure.
Dwell: You do a number of interior design projects; tell me about Old Tom and English.
Broom: We used a lot of marble for wall lights and designed lots of other pieces as well, like this postmodern marble flag base. The restaurant has 64 seats, reservations only. So when you’re seated, that’s it. It’s a bit like goingto a dinner party at somebody’s apartment. We used some existing pieces since we already had the Fulcrum design in optical crystal. I thought it would be nice to complement that form in a different material. It's kind of a toppling edge, balancing the sphere on two pieces of marble.
Dwell: There's a clearly geometric, postmodern influence happening right now in design. But this is simple and well-proportioned, it's not just shapes on shapes.
Broom: I think that’s the thing with marble, there’s a tipping point. The reason I’ve called the collection "Nouveau Rebel" is because traditionally marble is a very luxury material. We’re kind of living in a period, like in the late 1980s, it was considered very nouveau riche, you know? Very opulent but in kind of a negative way. I wanted to use the material in a more honest and natural way, but also not shy away from its glamorous connotations. I like that it went through that period of being a little bit naff.
The shapes need to be very simple because there’s so much detail on marble. The inspiration for the shapes is really all about balance.
Dwell: How much does the Globe Light weigh?
Broom: It’s not as heavy as you’d think. It’s basically turned as if you were making a marble sink, so less than an inch thick. Then we lacquer the inside of the bowl in black and then white, so it doesn’t let any light through at all. A centimeter-thick crystal dome gets fused on top. The idea is that the light source, which is in the base, just filters through the very thin marble but it doesn’t come through the sides. The light source is in the base, and to change the bulb, you lift it off and then it slots back on. But I wouldn’t recommend trying it [laughs].
Dwell: Going back to what you were saying about the variations of marble and how part of the beauty is that every piece looks slightly different, how are you managing that in terms of production? Are you looking at every piece that goes into production and saying, “I want this vein for this lamp?”
Broom: What tends to happen when we’re doing these pieces we experiment with different pieces of marble. Some Carrara marbles have more veining, so what we do is choose the stone that has the most forgiving veins when it’s cut in a certain way. When we first created the samples we looked at the differences and we’d say to our marble manufacturers, “We like this one more.” And they’d say, “Okay, this is from this slab. The reason it has more veins is because it has more texture in this area.” So when they choose stone now, they know what end result we want. But at the same time, we don’t want them to all be too similar. That’s the whole thing. When you buy these lights, normally people will buy in a cluster of two or three and they want them to have variation. So it’s just getting the balance right.
Dwell: And where is the crystal part done?
Broom: That’s done in the Czech Republic, the marble is done in Italy, and all the pieces are assembled in London.
Dwell: And how do you get traditional craftsmen to push their techniques into something innovative and modern?
Broom: As long as they’ve got the enthusiasm to achieve it, you’re 50% of the way there. I think that’s the key, because they can be quite stubborn.
Dwell: So you've set forth this idea once you’ve explored a material you’re on to the next one. Does that mean that whatever we see next year will be an entirely different collection?
Broom: It will be different. What you see here will be one of five mini-collections within one collection. At Salone, you'll see 20 to 25 new pieces.
Dwell: You have 20 people on staff and both design and manufacture your own work. Why did you choose to take the strategy you did?
Broom: I like the very beginning and the very end and having a say in all those parts in between, so it comes from wanting to control the whole process and create a brand around it. I don’t disagree with the way other designers work with large companies that manufacture their products, it’s just the way I wanted to go to create a business rather than work as a lone designer.
We do collaborations, though, and it's nice for me to work in that way, because normally I’m setting my own briefs and the possibilities seem endless. When you’re working with another brand, they push your brain or your thinking into another direction.
Check out more of Lee Broom's work in Dwell's Buyer's Sourcebook special issue, on newsstands November 2014.