Modern Living

Umbra Shift: Extraordinary by design

Julie Cabatit-Alegre - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – So there it was — at the Kenneth Cobonpue Showroom — Cobonpue’s celebrated Yoda chair on which the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, US President Barack Obama, sat. Well, perhaps not the exact same one on which he sat, but the same Yoda chair which internationally acclaimed Cebuano industrial designer Kenneth Cobonpue created and modified, with armrests and a swivel base, for the comfort of the APEC leaders who attended the welcome reception held at the Mall of Asia Arena in Manila.

The Kenneth Cobonpue Showroom — located on the ground floor of The Residences in Greenbelt, Makati City— showcases not only Cobonpue’s signature creations, which include his iconic Bloom Chair, but also the masterpieces of other international designers and globally recognized brands in contemporary home furnishings, such as Matt Carr of the Toronto-based homeware design company Umbra as well as Arno Ruijzenaars of Leff Amsterdam.

Umbra is a Canadian company that has been around for more than 35 years. The furniture and home accessories company is present in over 120 countries worldwide. “The premise of the company is based on original, modern design that is functional, casual and affordable,” says Umbra vice president and design director, Matt Carr.  “Umbra Shift, which was started two years ago, is our brand for experimentation. What makes it different are the designers and manufacturers that we are using as well as the retailers. The context is a little bit different. The distribution is much smaller and we are focusing on the premium design stores in every city.”

A highlight of the Umbra Shift collection on display at the Cobonpue showroom is the Coiled Stool, which was inspired by the traditional basket-making techniques of the Philippines. “The stools are made in Cebu because the manufacturer has the traditional hand-weaving techniques that we are looking for to do this specific stool,” Matt explains.

The concept of the stool, which was designed by New York based award-winning interior and industrial designer Harry Allen, was actually based on the tractor seat. Durable handwoven strings or threads are wrapped around an inner rattan core that is attached to a steel base. The legs are made of Gmelina hardwood.

“We wanted to add color to make it more contemporary, a little bit more special for the market,” Matt relates. “It took us a really long time to get the color right. Each one has three colored strings and when they are woven together, it gives it a really different look. Even the sequence of the colors makes a difference. So I think it’s an element of surprise that make it special. This is the way we got it to look a little bit more contemporary, by pushing the boundaries and limits of the manufacturing process. It takes a long time to weave these things, two days for just one stool, and just for the seat. It’s totally handmade.” The stools come in three basic colors (gray, aqua and coral) and  in two sizes (tall and small). 

“Working with Filipinos is really, really great,” Matt says. “They understand the design process and are very proud in their efforts. They really care that they get it right. They are patient, very trustworthy, and willing to take risks. It’s really quite nice to work with them. They have the desire and the passion.”

Born in Ottawa, Matt was 21 years old when he joined Umbra 15 years ago as an industrial design intern. Married with two kids, he is based in Toronto and travels to Asia at least two to three times a year. He has lived in Egypt, Hong Kong and China.

“Our products are relevant in the Philippine market, with its great use of small spaces,” Matt says. The Hanger Chair, for example, can be folded and hung on the wall. The modular Ash wood nest caddy can be used stacked together or taken apart as a tray, a box or a table stand. Bottle openers cast from solid brass make interesting conversation pieces. They have woolen blankets made in the USA, while handwoven floor mats with graphic patterns depicting backyards and swimming pools are made from abaca, made in Bicol in the Philippines.

Exquisite pieces from clock master Leff Amsterdam are also featured at the Cobonpue showroom.  “Lef means” guts or courage in Dutch. “It means to dare to do things that other people don’t do,” says Arno Ruijzenaars of Leff Amsterdam.

“When we started the company, we said, nobody really needs a clock,” Arno relates, “because everybody can see the time on his phone, even on the microwave oven or wherever. So nobody really needs them anymore. So we had to make them very, very special pieces. We saw it as a big challenge. We also believe in the fact that if you don’t make a clock just for the time, and make it because somebody wants to have it in their house as an art piece, then there is a market. You can choose for example a little statue somewhere or a painting on the wall, or you can choose to put a very beautiful clock from a very well-known designer.”

 They started with wall clocks before making the wristwatches. “People send designs from all over the world. Some we find, sometimes people find us. We learn about the designers through their work.” Richard Hutten is one such famous Dutch designer. “We told him we wanted a stand clock in our collection. He came up with this elegant piece made from white oak wood in the back and mirror in the front.

Recently, Leff collaborated with prolific Dutch designer Piet Hein Eek. “His work is in many museums,” Arno says. “He became famous with his scrap wood tables. Twenty years ago, he was the first one to come up with this kind of product. We asked him to design a clock for us and he came up with the Tube Clock

 “We see so many designs of clocks and it’s so incredibly difficult to come up with something new because almost everything has been made already,” Arno remarks. “Piet made this extruded ring, which gives it a very three-dimensional idea and he wanted to have the ring in a tube. His studio was in a very old Phillips factory where there were a whole lot of tubes and piping in  the building and he did not want to waste any material. He became well-known for his furniture line called The Tube, and he said, if we make a clock, he would love to make it out of a tube. And that’s how the Tube Clock came to life.”

The clock’s automatic quartz movement, Miyota, is Japanese. “It’s very durable and can last a very long time,” Arno says. They are the only ones that give a five year warranty on their clocks.

The Tube Clock looked exquisite on the tabletop, but it looked lonely by itself. “We said maybe it would be great to have a speaker next to it, because the shape is very suitable to make an audio speaker,” Arno relates. So together with Piet, they made the design and bought a very expensive audio component to put in the tube. “The funny thing is when we put it in, the sound that came out was extremely good, mainly because of the material, which is brushed stainless steel, but also because of the shape. Because the tube is so solid, it pushes the sound up. That was pure luck, because we never thought of it. It just happened.”

They just wanted the shape, and then they got the sound. “The interest in the speaker was huge and we liked working on  the project so much so that at the moment, we are working at scaling it up,” Arno reveals. “We will develop bigger speakers with some audio specialists. That’s the future.” From time-related products, they are expanding to time and sound.

Leff design is basically “minimalistic in a certain way but not boring,” says Erwin, an industrial engineer who started in the company as an intern when he was 23 years old. He is now 29. “We focus a lot on the details and basic materials like steel, copper, brass, wood, and ceramics that give it a certain quality, that make it timeless.”

Arno started the company in 2011 together with his younger brother Dennis, now 31 years old, and Erwin Termaat, the youngest of the three partners.

Leff Amsterdam in not new in the region, having a presence in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo, and now in the Philippines, catering mainly to a high-end market.

“We are in that niche market because of pricing, but also maybe because of an appreciation of a certain kind of design which is not always for everybody,” Arno says. “I look at this store for example, and I’m really proud that people buy products like these with this level of design, and they also like to have our own products.” 
















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