On January 21st 2015, Umbra celebrated their 35th Anniversary and much like their products, it was an effortlessly stylish affair at their flagship store at Queen and John. The event was brimming with staff, media and VIPs. Umbra’s founders, Paul Rowan and Les Mandelbaum were on hand to help celebrate this special occasion. Umbra’s designers current and former were there including Karim Rashid who designed some of Umbra’s most successful products. (Remember the Garbino Can – 1997 and OH Chair – 1999?). The event was filled with the sound of live bands, great food and drinks among the backdrop the entire Umbra collection in the flagship store.
After speaking to some of Umbra’s staff, it dawned upon me that although this company is a major player in housewares and is known worldwide, it still seems like a big cozy family: cultivating an environment that fosters innovation, functionality and the creative designs that they are known for. And perhaps one of the reasons why Umbra has been able to become a global success, whose products can be found in more than 120 countries.
Curiously, it all started with shades. I find it remarkable how the company grew from one product. Here is an excerpt from an interview with the National Post on the very beginnings of Umbra:
Les Mandelbaum: “That’s how the company started. At the time, I was a bass player playing in bar bands, and when you’d travel you’d look up old friends, so I looked up Paul, who was working as a graphic artist in Ottawa. He had these paper window shades with graphics on them … at the time, there was only bamboo shades. He said “(People) can’t get cool shades like this for the window. I want to do this.” It started the whole company. We weren’t thinking any further than that.”
Paul Rowan: “I moved into an apartment in Ottawa, and the windows were bare, so I went out to find something that was suitable. It was kind of Japanese-inspired: I found some architectural paper that was translucent. People started commenting. Les and I grew up in the same neighbourhood and I’d already been working with him as a graphic designer, so I suggested to him that we start manufacturing them. It was the start of a great thing. At the time, I think there was a real desert in casual contemporary design, so when we brought these ideas out, basically I threw them in the back of my car, and we actually went into stores that were selling paper products.”
Congratulations Umbra, a truly successful Toronto-based companies that have captured the world’s attention. All the best in the years to come!
Photos by James Hsieh