What is the design philosophy behind Umbra, the Toronto based housewares company popular for its mass market products? We talked with their design leadership to uncover how they think, where they are heading, and to understand what makes the global brand tick. Hello Co-Founder/VP Inspiration Paul Rowan and Design Director Matt Carr.

Tell me about your journey into a designers life?
PR My design journey began at my Dad’s hardware store in the Junction area of Toronto.

MC My father was a landscaper and I worked closely with him growing up. I thought I was going to be an architect till I tried it out for an internship at Douglas Cardinal Architects. They do great work but I could not wrap by brain around working on a project for years at a time. I was introduced to product design and thought it would be a great fit. Studied at Humber College in Toronto which turned out to be a good decision as Humber offered a good mix of business and design. I came back to Ottawa in the summers to work at Design Workshop hacking at prototypes for Nortel at the time.  In my second year, I landed an internship/summer job at Umbra, and now the Design Director (thirteen years and never been bored).

UmbraWhat is Umbra’s design goal and mission?
MC In short, Umbra is focused on delivering original design that is affordable, casual, modern, and functional.

PR Overall, we want to build a global brand and deliver great product while inspiring our creative team.

As far as the status of design brands…where do you think Umbra lives?
MC There are very few brands that offer the breadth of Umbra so we don’t have many direct competitors. We are changing the direction of product to better and longer lasting materials, bigger furniture pieces and higher value goods. All things that will uplift the Umbra brand and deliver better product experiences to consumers. Not dealing with the cute cheap and cheerful stuff anymore, which was a bit of a drug after the recession to generate volume and sales.

PR When setting up my first apartment, I wanted to live in a modern, well designed environment but it had to be affordable. That became the foundation of our design philosophy. We don’t compare ourselves to other design brands as we’re one of the few companies that have such a wide selection of products and categories with a design centric point of view.

friends_umbra_conceal_book_shelf_small_02What is the design life like at the company…tell me about how great design arrives…are you spec’ing it, buying it, making it…all of the above?
MC Inside the studio, we have fifteen designers working in teams to create products that are original. The studio sits right beside category management, marketing, sales, operations, etc. so the designers are aware of their surroundings and the consequence of a good or not so good product.

Working with external designers has always been a focus for the company. More than 25% of the Umbra collection has been in collaboration with established and emerging designers and we are constantly developing new relationships. Paul leads the charge with student collaborations, and the Conceal Bookshelf by Miron Lior has been the most successful.

Our workflow process can take anywhere between five months for a fabricated item and two years for a bigger more complex product.

PR We’re frequently asked about how we create design. Put simply, we rely on three drivers:
Market awareness: We have an incredible amount of market intelligence, and we’ve built amazing relationships with retailers around the world through our sales team, helping to decode the retail trends. Our designers are situated in our studio in the dead centre of our building, constantly being fed information on trends, which helps them be more productive in what they do.

Technology and process: Our team in Asia is constantly feeding us factory updates on new materials and process.  Material research is incredibly important and the material specification of a product will often determine the success of the design and the materials themselves can be a driver for the design idea.

Finally, our Design Team:  We have a legacy of design in our studio that started in the 80’s. We rely on the personal vision of the design team to interpret the needs of our customers in innovative and original ways. The designers have skin in the game through a generous incentive program and every designer has their name on the product. There is passion in the work they do at Umbra  versus in a studio job where there is little recognition for their work.

modern-mailboxesTell me about your favourite Umbra piece, what drove that design and did it achieve what you were hoping it would?
For success, it would be one of my first projects, the Postino Mailbox, which is on more homes in Toronto than you can imagine. I am proud that this product has been relevant in a competitive marketplace for over a decade.

PR I tend to love our latest products as they reflect the accumulation of all the design learning we have gained over the years. The Umbra Shift line that we just released is a good example of that. Harry Allen’s Coiled Stool and Philippe Malouin’s Hanger Chair are fantastic, award winning designs that I personally love.

There have been a few very interesting departures from the housewares and novel gifts that you are known for…I am thinking of the + Line and Shift. What is the back story…is it marketing and event, an idea test drive, or something else?
Umbra Shift is a new brand. We are asking designers to design relevant product that would fit into their own homes and studio environments. On the retail side, we are reconnecting with the best design stores around the world. It’s an exciting time and there is a lot of confidence and momentum with the collection.

PR Shift is a great example of holistic design. By that I mean the marketing, sales plan, design brief and style were conceived well in advance of any product design work. Our team planned for the launch of the line at ICFF, two years in advance with the idea of winning the award for Best Accessory.

From your perspective, what is around the corner that we should know about, something you are getting ready to embrace?
PR Designers have to meet the needs of their generation as the world is evolving new ways of living. The internet and the way we buy and sell are major factors, and if understood will lead to successful design.
MC From a product design standpoint, I want to be involved with product that is compelling and can be generational. I want to live with less but better quality products.

What is the Umbra (Latin for “shade”) brand about, and how are you planning to lead it in the coming years?
PR The key to our success is our ability to serve diverse global markets. When Canada is going through a decline, Brazil is on an upswing. As bricks and mortar retailing go through tough times, direct to consumer selling via the internet is an option we’re ready for.

MC We are a medium sized private company so we are pretty nimble and can move quickly to stay ahead of this ever changing retail landscape.

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 10.53.50 PM 1What product do you wish that you had been a part of and why? What is the classic Umbra piece? 
MC I have always been fascinated by flight and love to travel, and would be interested to see what was going on in the early 1900’s when travel was commercialized. Design was such a huge part of this revolution.

As for Umbra, the Garbino is an icon for the company. There are many stories behind the product but one that is memorable is about its patent. The product has three features; a curved side, two oval handles, and a scalloped cut across the top surface. You can get around the patent by omitting one of these features but it changes the can and it really does lose the overall character.

Is there any product or category that Umbra cannot get into? I am thinking food, fashion, transportation…where are the edges of the Umbra brand?
 I don’t think we’re limited in the various categories of product but all of them must be on brand and live up to our promise of being original, modern, casual, functional and affordable.

Tell me about the Umbra customer…who are they, and are they changing?
MC Its a broad demographic. From back to school college kids to zoomers. The interesting thing is different products resonate with different demographics and they are all equally important. The younger clientele will be purchasing Umbra for the first time so it’s very important to make a good impression. The older demographic is buying Umbra as it is a recognizable brand they trust. Our sweet spot is with mid-30s women spending money on their home. They want design and quality and they don’t want IKEA.


Is being from Toronto an advantage? Does this location feed/fuel design at Umbra?
MC Having a home base in Toronto is great. Canadians are well-traveled, accepting, curious, and experimental – all good things for creativity. Umbra Shift is a big movement where we are opening up the door to emerging local designers like MSDS to create products that can be seen and respected on an international stage.

PR We’ve talked a lot to US retailers about how they see the Canadian market and they definitely think Canadians have more contemporary taste. I don’t think I’m overstating the fact that Umbra has had an influence on Canadian culture and helped to improve design awareness here.

We know the appeal of Dutch design, the refined Italians, and the brassy Americans. Talk to me about the Canadian design scene, what is out there that you are interested in?
MC Canadian design is thoughtful, functional and shows smart uses of material. MSDS, Lukas Peet, Philippe Malouin, Fugitive Glue, and our Umbra Studio team are all ones to watch. Also, look out for Knauf and Brown and Zoë Mowat.

I am curious what you think of the lifecycle of Umbra products…we see the vintage markets for brands like Alessi retaining and even gaining in value, do you think about the vintage market and heirlooms?
MC Depends on the item. I see lots of Umbra in better vintage markets if they are in the right materials, or more of a sentimental product.


PR Products made from molded plastics are often considered low value and we’ve done plenty of molded product. To counteract the impression that we’ve produced too many low cost items, we’re now focusing on better materials to create higher value designs that are more sustainable and hopefully become classics. The MoMA has our plastic Garbino Can in its permanent collection, and we have plenty of vintage Umbra products (my designs) available for re-sale on eBay.

What are you favourite…
Car/ The Mini Countryman.
Chair/ The Hanger Chair by Philippe Malouin.
Building/ OCADU in Toronto.
Shoes/ Bata vintage tennis shoes.
Movie/ ‘The Blade Runner’.

Car/ 1998 Porsche 993 Carrera 2, a timeless sound of an air-cooled engine.
Chair/ The Magis Steelwood Chair by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec is a great use of mixed material.
Building/ HSBC Building in Hong Kong. It looks like it’s built inside-out using prefab components which leaves it free of internal structures.
Drink/ The Bourbon Sour.
Shoes/ Nike Free Chukka Flyknit.

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