April 7, 2017

Umbra offers design for everyday living

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The Tier side and coffee tables are made from powder-coated steel.

From window shades to garbage cans to clocks:  Umbra co-founder Paul Rowan brings style to everything big and small.

By Catherine Dunwoody

In Canada, Umbra is the very definition of a household name. In 1979, graphic designer Paul Rowan co-founded Umbra with his childhood friend Les Mandelbaum with the idea of bringing “thought and creativity to everyday items.” The first piece they worked on was a window shade; fittingly, the name Umbra is Latin for “shade.” Today some 70,000 retailers in 120 countries carry the brand. Rowan was recently in Vancouver to visit Emily Carr University, where Umbra has set up a design competition, and we caught up with the company’s “VP of Inspiration.”
CD: Where is Umbra at these days as a brand?

Umbra co-founder Paul Rowan.

Umbra co-founder Paul Rowan.

PR: We’re more inclusive in our design, not separated from consumerism. Design and designers are consumers, and consumers influence designs, so we want to reflect what people’s needs are and show design leadership, not following the trend where everything looks Scandinavian.
CD: Can you tell us about your Umbra Shift line?
PR: Umbra Shift is a highly curated collection of products that we work with designers around the world to create. We think of it as design for designers. The products address the fact that many of us want to live and work in the same spaces. Affordable and accessible items, but not at every retailer. Great, graphical, highly sophisticated packaging, kind of a convergence between analog and digital.
We are at an interesting place where we want to live in the digital age, but we want the comfort of analog. For instance, a box that holds your tools like pencils and pens, but also supports your iPad kind of thing. Interesting, artisanal, handmade, using elemental materials and less plastic.
CD:  Who is your key market?
PR: We started in Canada and found out quickly that we needed to look outside of that, think globally and raise the bar of our quality when we started selling to Japan, Europe and the U.S. We had a very willing market. For example, Pottery Barn didn’t have window treatment before we developed it for them.
CD: What are your tastes in trends and colour?
PR: I like products that tell a story and have a concept. Not just about objects around the house that don’t have personality. People want long-lasting, classic product—that drives colour choice. I like things that are not as trendy, made with better materials, and will pay more for something that is beautiful and has staying power.
CD: What are your favourite pieces?
PR: The window shade I designed 30 years ago was impactful and turned into the foundation of our brand. The injection moulded Garbino trash can (a permanent fixture at MOMA) was our idea that good design didn’t have to be expensive. The first photo frames that I did with multi-openings that allowed people to be creative. Those were industry-changing ideas. Wall clocks. The mini-quartz had emerged in the ’80s so it made it possible to do all kinds of clock faces.
CD: You could have your own Umbra museum.
PR: (laughs) Yep!

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