In the Pink


The grand opening of Umbra’s first stand-alone store is only three days away. Construction workers and electricians dodge past our small group as we survey the concentrated mess of pine planks, steel rods and dangling wires, and wonder how they’re ever going to make it.

It has, after all, taken business partners and boyhood chums Les Mandelbaum and Paul Rowan a full 28 years just to reach this point. What began in 1979 with a one-off, printed-paper window blind – thus the company’s name, Umbra, which means “shade” in Latin – burgeoned over the following decades into a $150-million international conglomerate specializing in inexpensive, often whimsical, industrial-design housewares.

The pair wanted a proper showcase for their product line that went well beyond the constraints of their head office in Scarborough, Ont.: a retail space that would set the pace for future Umbra-branded stores. Somewhere, as Paul Rowan says, “in our own backyard, where we’d have control of the whole process.”

So they chose the two-storey, 7,000-square-foot building at 165 John Street, a half-block north of Toronto’s artsy Queen Street West and the former site of several notable eateries, including Michael Stadtlnder’s first, epomymous restaurant, plus the Cow Caf and Young Thailand. They then hired the Toronto firms of Kohn Shnier and Figure3 as architects and interior designers, respectively.

A complete gutting ensued. Brick outer walls facing the west front facade and southern exposure gave way to glass, providing a “floating space” view of the venue. Right inside the main entrance, a large, diagonally slanting girder (painted white, as the better part of the store would be) was installed to support the upper level’s weight.

Poured concrete formed the front door and second floor landings. These were to be accessed by a wide, south-side staircase – except that on our visit the two-inch-thick acrylic slab steps under-lit by fluorescents, plus the translucent side panels transfer-pri nted with pictures of Umbra designers, were still sitting encased in their cardboard wraps. Against the opposite wall, the makings of a half-glass-enclosed elevator, which would run from the second floor down to the new U+ Studio section in the sub-basement, were propped in piles. Overhead hung five huge “Flow Lamp” chandeliers, shrouded forlornly in burlap.

Everything, assured Shir Ross, a Ryerson design graduate and intern construction project manager, “will be clear, transparent, floating in stark white,” because the products themselves are to provide the colour. Everything, she added, with a glance over at our faces, would be all right on the night.

Thursday, May 31st, 9 p.m.

A giant U logo has been attached high up the facade, and the whole of the building’s exterior is now brilliantly clad in vertical strips of hot pink plastic – or, to be more accurate, custom-designed, extruded polycarbonate panels equipped with LED backlighting. These oversized shutters, “sunglasses for the building,” as architect John Shnier calls them, are doing what they are meant to be doing – attracting attention, and drawing interested strollers up from the Queen Street strip.

The place is packed with in-crowd types downing canapes and free champagne. One can barely see the semi-transparent display stands, let alone the merchandise. Blame that on the hordes of hangers-on, not the in-store lighting system. There is, fact, an over-abundance of brightness this night, due mostly to the glaring white walls and environmentally-correct-but-way-too-harsh fluorescent bulbs installed in the five hanging chandeliers. Each of these is now revealed as a stainless steel, Sputnik-like satellite sprouting a dozen incongruously lampshaded spindles.

Backing out of the party and into the soft evening shadows, we notice that most of the open-concept elevator components are still sitting stacked against the wall.

Monday, June 4th, 2:30 p.m.

During daytime, the store’s lighting appears far less garish. And the pink plastic “sunglasses” impart a softened glow to the interior, now revealed as a kicky, upscale-kitschy shopping site.

Up the acrylic stairway to the second floor, one is greeted by a selection of Ballenford Books on architecture, landscape and design; a plasma TV screen offering product highlights and event videos; and a Corian-topped table with three flat-screen monitors where the public is invited to browse Umbra’s website for further info – a nice interdisciplinary touch for a company that currently does up to 30 per cent of its business online.

Better yet, beside the merchandise racks and shelves sit more tables and monitors, where members of Umbra’s design team work, answer questions and take suggestions from the public, an innovative concept that puts the designers, in Paul Rowan’s words, “in the heart of what it’s all about.”

This emphasis on designer image flows throughout the store: in the transfer-printed staircase panels, on a downstairs art-wall, and in the gigantic sketchbook blow-ups enlivening the pricier U+ section. The new venue is thus as much a showcase for North American design talent, established or otherwise, as it is for product. In addition to bringing in big names, such as Will Alsop and Karim Rashid, to work on special ventures, Umbra also gives many young interns, such as Shir Ross, their head start in the business.

It is a progressive attitude, befitting and benefitting Umbra and its designers alike. As progressive as the company’s vow to revitalize the small city square behind its new building, or its pledge to donate one per cent of first-year profits to the Bring Back the Don river reclamation project.

Despite our catching the occasional whiff of industrial-strength glue, or sighting a still-damp patch on the main floor’s concrete; despite the fact that the elevator, now assembled, still isn’t running; it seems clear that Umbra is committed to maintaining forward momentum – and that what it sets out to do, it finishes.