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Squish magnets from Umbra. (Fred Lum)
Squish magnets from Umbra. (Fred Lum)

Elevating design

The brains behind Umbra Add to ...

Umbra started with a window shade.

When Paul Rowan, co-founder and vice-president of design for Umbra, a manufacturer of original, contemporary housewares, moved into an Ottawa apartment in 1979, the windows were bare. Not liking the only options available at the time to cover his windows - bamboo shades or custom window treatments - he designed a paper shade with printed graphics on it. The next year, he started manufacturing them in Toronto with his partner, Les Mandelbaum, and the pair shopped the shades around to local stores. The reception was good.

"From that idea, we realized we had the beginnings of a company manufacturing well-designed, intelligent products, that appealed to young people and first-time homeowners," Mr. Rowan says. "Then we just started doing more and more product."

Thirty years later, Umbra has offices worldwide and recently built a factory in China that employs 500 people. The company's designs are now available at more than 25,000 retailers in more than 75 countries. Its headquarters remain in Toronto.

"Our design philosophy hasn't strayed far from the first product," says Mr. Rowan, 58. "It's really about necessity. Design is about intelligent solutions to product problems. The style we use is contemporary, and contemporary is always changing by definition."

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Known for taking everyday products and making them beautiful, one of the company's most popular items is a trash can, the "garbino," an Umbra classic created by Canadian designer Karin Rashid, which is included in the permanent collection of MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"We really believe that masterminding ideas in Canada is the right way to elevate design and spread the word about Canadian design around the world," Mr. Rowan says. "Manufacturing is wherever it's competitive. The democratization of design is part of our philosophy. The turning point for us was that good and affordable design could be accessible to many people."

One way the company promotes Canadian designers is by putting the designers' names on products. That also lets consumers know that Umbra's products are original designs.

"Some companies may feel that having a designer attached to their brand is conflicting or that it will overpower their brand," Mr. Rowan says. "We're not afraid of that. We support design and the individual behind the design of the product."

Umbra also supports Canadian design education by partnering with schools such as Carleton University, OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design), George Brown and Humber colleges and the Pratt Institute in New York and by creating design competitions around the world. Mr. Rowan believes they've really made a difference to design education in Canada, but acknowledges it's self serving because the company gets a chance to recruit the best young talent coming up from the design programs.

"We're big on young people coming into our studio," Mr. Rowan says. "They're highly productive, but we also give young designers a chance to have their products produced through the Umbra manufacturing machine."

If a student's product is successful, Umbra pays the school and the designer a percentage of the sales, which is then used to fund more design development.

Mr. Rowan feels being design centric and innovative in everything they do, from sales to marketing to operations, has been key to the company's 30 years of growth.

"We've continued to raise the bar to do our products," Mr. Rowan says. "It very challenging but also our formula for success."

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