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From the Umbra web site:

Architect John Shnier designed Umbra's Toronto headquarters with a unique exterior technique that wraps different areas of the building in a translucent plastic covering, diffusing light in the offices and creating a dramatic backlit effect at night. The interior design firm Figure3 created a relaxed and comfortable interior that is literally built around the design department, just as the company is.

From Saturday's Globe and Mail:

Umbra's new flagship offers design in action

Karen von Hahn
June 2, 2007 at 12:00 AM EDT

Ever heard of Les Mandelbaum? How about Paul Rowan? Didn't think so. Now, walk around your house and take a look at your wall clock, picture frames or trash can. Chances are you'll see a small, elegant U somewhere. It stands for Mandelbaum and Rowan's design company, Umbra.

Umbra is the anti-Roots. Like Roots, it's a company founded in the 1970s by two childhood friends, but unlike high-profile Roots front men Michael Budman and Don Green, these two have avoided the celebrity limelight, spending the past three decades quietly building their brand. Over the years, they have helped make others, like design star Karim Rashid, into household names.

Pioneers in the now booming cheap chic movement, Umbra's line comprises more than 2,000 contemporary, affordable products for the home, sold through 25,000 retailers in 75 countries.

The one thing they haven't done is brand themselves.

This weekend, however, as Toronto kicks off its cultural renaissance with the big reveal of Daniel Libeskind's crystal extension to the Royal Ontario Museum, Umbra too will be in the spotlight. Twenty-seven years after Rowan and Mandelbaum first started making blinds (hence the name Umbra, which means “shade” in Latin), the company is opening a flagship store, in the same Queen West quartier they started in.

“You have to be a certain vintage to remember how iconic this building is,” says Mandelbaum, who has cycled over to the John Street construction site to meet me. “Stadtlander had a restaurant here. It used to be the Cow Café, and the Avocado Club and then Young Thailand. We got our first $40,000 loan at the bank around the corner at Queen and Simcoe — Paul still owes me $10,000.”

For Rowan, the attraction was all about the simple lines of the “Bauhaus-y” building. Last fall, when they heard it was on the market, they snapped it up. Now, the two watch as workers put the finishing touches on an exterior frieze of extruded polycarbonate in a vivid magenta, which will scream “Umbra” to passersby.

“Toronto is a great design city, with the most creative design minds in the world, but the most boring city for architecture,” Rowan says.

Adds Mandelbaum, “We figured that if anybody should step up to the plate, it's Umbra.”

Courtesy of Toronto architect John Schnier and fixture designers Figure 3, a huge steel beam now slashes diagonally across the store front's window to support the radically opened-up cathedral interior. Everything is white, sleek, futuristic, floating — almost glowing, thanks to concealed ribbons of LEDs.

Along with a rotating collection of Umbra classics, the store will feature their Umbra+ “couture” line, as well as limited-edition “experimental” products.

“It was kind of annoying the way retailers would always say to us, ‘If our customer doesn't get it within 90 seconds of wheeling her shopping cart by the display, then we don't want it,' and some of our best ideas would be left on the wall,” says Mandelbaum, who looks forward to having a forum to express what Umbra is all about.

To that end, a lit wall of Umbra icons forms a sort of brand museum. A changing exhibition of “Umbra art” designed by the company's 30 industrial designers will be for sale. A rear “graffiti wall” features a collage of designers' notes torn out of sketchbooks and renderings from their computer screens. “We really believe in giving complete credit to all our designers,” explains Rowan, who sees it as part of Umbra's role to nurture creative talent.

As if in illustration, the pair keep introducing me to yet another adorable – probably inexpensive – dewy design grad who they have just taken on (as in, “This is Michelle, our design cop,” or “Here's Shir. Ask her anything you want to know about the store”).

On the second level is a bookstore as well as a studio where Umbra designers will actually sit and work. “It will be cool to see what happens when people can see the kind of thinking that goes into product design,” Rowan says. “Not to mention how the designers will interact with real people, their end users.”

Another innovation is an enormous glass wall facing the park behind, which will work as both a public exhibition space as well as a sort of community streetlight. “That park has always been sort of, well, challenged, as a safe place to hang out,” Mandelbaum says. “The thing is, it's right between Frank Gehry's new AGO and the new opera house. If culture follows art, then we feel it's important to do our part.”

If anybody out there still thinks design is just window dressing and a store is just a place to sell products, it's high time they meet Les and Paul – and Umbra.

From the Umbra web site:

Umbra will open its first concept store in downtown Toronto on June 1st. Located at 165 John Street (north of Queen Street West), the 7,000 square foot, two-level space will showcase the largest assortment of Umbra and U+ Studio Collection products, Umbra licensed products, as well as limited-edition, customized clothing, and made-to-order furniture.

“The time is right to showcase Umbra in its entirety. Umbra is a company that breathes innovative, inspiring and functional design,” says Les Mandelbaum, President and Co-Founder of Umbra Ltd. “We want the new store to be a destination for designers and customers alike who want to experience our brand. The company’s design philosophy will be illustrated through the exterior and interior of the store, the breadth of products, and the involvement by our designers and international design partners.”

Umbra has again partnered with Kohn Shnier Architects and interior design firm Figure 3, who together designed Umbra’s award-winning Toronto headquarters in 2000. The exterior will be wrapped in translucent pink cladding, while the interior will be sleek, minimal and white – the perfect backdrop for Umbra’s dynamic and colourful products.

The store will host a number of Umbra events in an open concept lounge area with a multi-media wall on the second floor, including new product launches, product development seminars by Umbra designers and gatherings for the company’s international design partners. Renowned British architect, Will Alsop, will visit in June to launch Table Tools, a set of cutlery that will premiere at the store as part of the U+ collection. Following the launch, Table Tools will be available at Umbra's online store and at select retailers where U+ is sold.

“Umbra has built an international reputation for unique and prolific design over the past 27 years,” says Paul Rowan, Co-Founder and Vice President of Design, Umbra Ltd. “Our approach to design starts with an investment in future designers. We partner with leading design schools like Ontario College of Art & Design, George Brown, Humber College, Carlton University and the Pratt Institute in New York. Our award-winning design team of over 30 men and women from all over the world and our partnerships with notable outside product designers are the heart and soul of the company. Each product created carries its designer’s name.”

The store will include a functioning design space where customers can see a different member of Umbra’s design team at work each day, as well as a rotating showcase of works by the company’s industrial, graphic and photographic designers. Chris Barnes, Umbra’s photographer since 1983, will be the first to exhibit six numbered and signed limited-edition prints, displayed in Umbra frames.

To celebrate the opening of the new store, Umbra will donate one per cent of total sales from the store’s first year to support The Task Force to Bring Back the Don and its efforts to revitalize the natural beauty of Toronto’s Don River watershed, an area of great significance to Umbra’s founders.

195 Posts
I walked in yesterday at 10 in the morning, and its a BEAUTIFUL store! and I like a lot of the furniture actually!... but it seemed as if it were still being finished, there were construction workers all around, installing glass panels still, and unfinished edges.... and they were all staring at me as I just walked in.... Hmm... Is it Technically open yet?

Premium Member
79,182 Posts
That's awesome...

I wonder what happened to Young Thailand?

She has had a bit of up and down luck, but currently she just opened up a small restaurant somewhere ( I don't know the location). Apparently it is great because she is back doing the cooking.

I didn't know these Umbra guys were Toronto boys.

217 Posts
It's amazing what a big difference the small details-- like this small building--make.

I can imagine a photo-tour thread of Toronto would instantly be strengthened if we could show off some retail locations that look like this. (Then again, big things like our newly technicolour CN Tower will show well on our city well too!)
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