Umbra – Modern design meets home décor

In a sea of interior design and home décor brands, Umbra stands out thanks to the originality of its products. Headquartered in Toronto, the home accessories manufacturer boasts an impressive breadth and depth of products, sold through thousands of retailers around the world including in China, Brazil and the Netherlands.

With 90% of products designed in Umbra's studio and the balance coming from talented designers the world over, every Umbra design is modern, casual and functional. But more importantly, everything it produces is affordable and unique.

Intellectual property rights have been instrumental to Umbra's growth and success along the way, helping the company safeguard ideas, stay ahead of the competition, secure relationships with key retailers and manufacturers and recruit designers, who know their work will be protected.

Umbra invests heavily in patents and industrial designs. However, with an output of 30 to 60 new products released globally every year, Umbra focuses its time and money on the major markets, where the designs are most in need of protection and rights will be issued most readily.

Les Mandelbaum, co-founder of Umbra

Let there be shade

The company was formed in 1979, a product of co-founders Paul Rowan and Les Mandelbaum's passion for modern design and their desire to create home accessories that were both accessible and affordable. Umbra launched its first product and was legally incorporated the following year, borrowing its name from the Latin word for "shade," a nod to its debut design—a printed paper window shade.

Arguably more synonymous with the company, however, is the Garbo trash can. A 1996 collaboration with famous industrial designer Karim Rashid (YouTube), the wastebasket was an immediate success, selling over 2 million units in the first 2 years of production, earning it the 1997 Chicago Athenaeum Good Design Award and securing a permanent place in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2000.

In addition to collaborating with designers the likes of Rashid, Umbra has an equally talented in-house design team, headed by Matt Car and featuring designers from across the globe. With innovation as its driving force, the team uses inspiration from around the world to create thoughtful designs. It should come as no surprise that, over its 44-year history, Umbra has established itself as a global leader in product design.

Jump-starting an IP strategy

Not only was Umbra's collaboration with Karim Rashid a success from a sales perspective but it also kickstarted their IP strategy. In its infancy, Umbra did not have the resources to protect its designs. But as a result of the success of the Garbo trash can, Umbra was able to register its designs and enforce its IP rights.

IP rights are key because formal IP rights deter many copiers, although they cannot always prevent infringement. "Often we have to send a cease-and-desist letter and even take legal action," says Matt Carr. "Rarely does this end in court, but we've been in pre-trial mediations often. Not too many houseware products fight as hard as we do."

Today, Umbra seeks IP protection monthly for its new products and has IP embedded in its business strategy.

"We are hardworking, competitive, curious and creative. Having likeminded people with ideas worth protecting goes beyond our products and affects how we operate across all global departments. Innovation is at the core of our company, and we pride ourselves on being industry leaders. With this mindset, we can grow revenue and brand recognition worldwide."

As a global company with products in over 100 countries, Umbra's IP rights have been essential to its international success, acting as a deterrent to thousands of potential copiers. Those that remain are few enough that Umbra has the resources to be able to contend with them. Without the ability to defend itself from fraudulent companies stealing its designs, Umbra would lose the originality that has been so critical to its identity and success.

Advice for SMEs

When asked what advice he would give to SMEs developing an IP strategy, Matt Carr offers these tips:

  • Design unique products. Whether you intend to apply for a patent or an industrial design, having unique products will increase the likelihood of your application getting approved. It's also helpful to register trademarks, which you can then use to associate your products with your unique brand.
  • Hire an IP professional. If you can afford it, having an IP professional on your team is well worth it. An IP professional is someone who knows the ins and outs of intellectual property and can help you do a search and apply for and defend patents or industrial designs. This makes them a very valuable business asset.
  • Get comfortable with the IP laws and habits of various markets. Familiarize yourself with the IP landscape so you can tailor your IP strategy to the markets you want to focus on.

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