Umbra Upgrades With U+ Line
While Umbra was developing its new U+ studio collection of housewares and accessories, it internally referred to the three style directions as College, Queen West, and Bloor, to evoke the individual flavors of each of these sections of Toronto, where the company is based. If these names mean nothing to you, try Soho, Brooklyn, and Madison, which is what Umbra eventually settled upon.
The monikers are telling, as with U+, Umbra hopes to evoke the quintessential urbanity of New York. The 110 items in the line (44 of which were rolled out in late July, and the rest throughout the fall) are a clever melding of style, merchandising, and brand identity. Umbra is hoping the equal attention it paid to function and fashion, and the pieces’ reasonable prices (most items range between $50-100, although the glass-topped Vetro table will sell for around $350) will lead to a bigger share of the global market.
Describing the various collections under the U+ umbrella, the line’s brand manager, Philip Verhagen, says that the Madison group is “sophisticated and cosmopolitan, reflecting an elegant, form-oriented design style.” Sleek silhouettes and glossy materials prevail. Most typical: the Um side chair, molded of polished aluminum and featuring a bow-tie-shaped punch-out. The Madison line also includes four of the products from the first iteration of U+, in 1999.
The Soho collection aims for an earthier sensibility, and contains natural materials and softer lines. “Soho emphasizes warmth and the organic world,” says Verhagen. This pastoral version of the city is manifested in the long-stemmed, silver-plated flowers and metallic gold poppy design adorning the Brella bowls, which are supposed to recall wildflowers harvested from a vacant lot. The line also includes a set of finger-grooved oak nesting tables with gently bowed sides.
For Brooklyn, the idea is something more “street.” In a distinct reference to graffiti, many of the simple birch plywood items in the collection are screen-printed with photographic images. For example, the top of the Remix table is decorated with graphics, but it ingeniously flips over, giving the user the option of showing the pictures or not. To maintain design freshness, Brooklyn’s graphics will change every 3-6 months.
Since its founding in 1979, Umbra has made its reputation with inexpensive products that focus on intelligent design. “We’re developing smart solutions to multi-functional problems,” says Verhagen. “Our goal is to re-engineer the function of products while making them aesthetically responsible or surprising.”
While many of the items in the U+ line are higher-priced than Umbra’s utilitarian staples, Verhagen says the line is a natural progression, rather than a radical shift upscale.
“Umbra will always serve a wide audience with smart, functional designs at reasonable prices,” says Verhagen. “We have the same profit margins on the U+ pieces that we do on our other products. We’re just moving forward with more audacious designs and more expensive materials. We’re not changing direction, just reinforcing our identity as a true design company.”
Well before he became ubiquitous, Karim Rashid designed the company’s most familiar item: the Garbini Can wastebasket. Since then, Umbra has developed a substantial in-house stable of designers whose contributions are valued; nearly all catalog items carry individual design credits. Explains Verhagen: “We want U+ to be a platform for established designers, but also for the fresh ideas of young talent.”