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From Children’s Toy to Household Staple

From Children’s Toy to Household Staple

Dennis Hepworth |

By the late '80s, Umbra had diversified beyond just paper window shades. We had realized that shades alone were too niche and difficult for retailers to stock and display, and found success with simpler items like place mats and clocks. Our market had changed and was being driven by specialty chains that were growing in the USA. They liked our approach of casual, modern and functional design and needed vendors for many home categories.

Umbra was already selling in many parts of the world and I often traveled to see customers and exhibit or walk trade shows, always on the lookout for new ideas. While in Paris shopping in Les Halles, I noticed a small multi-colored swing-top trash can in a toy store. Intrigued, I bought one and traced its origin back to Japan. My idea was it was a good fit for bathrooms, but could also be up-sized for other rooms. At the time there were only industrial swing/push cans or very boring kitchen and open top trash cans on the market. No one had thought of applying design and color to lowly garbage cans. Like other Umbra home items, I thought since it was part of the room why not enhance the décor rather than hide it?

I located the Japanese plastic company behind the trash can and they sent me a few extra samples. When I showed it to our small team their reaction was “not useful, too small, why should we sell trash cans?” I thought OK, but it was just before the New York Gift Show and why not bring one and get a reaction? When I tried to locate the samples they were all gone. Our team had taken them home.

I asked them, “if they were so bad why did you take them home? Please bring them back”. We took a few to the show and didn’t even catalog them. They got a lot of attention, so we ordered a few hundred and voilá, Umbra was in the trash can business and the trash can business was never the same.

Umbra trash cans sketch

The first step was to make a bigger swing top can in plastic. The problem was Umbra couldn’t afford the tooling. I talked to our distributors and the one most interested was our German importer who had a good understanding of plastics. We agreed whoever could find the best toolmaker would win the contract. It turned out that the distributor found a great toolmaker and molder in Northern Italy so we went 50/50 on the mold, and the trash cans were a huge success. Soon we were importing so many containers that it made sense to do a new mold in North America. We must still own 50% of a tool somewhere in Italy!

Soon it was time to develop more trash cans. Paul Rowan and I met with an industrial designer living in Toronto name Karim Rashid. He had just closed his clothing line and was working as a DJ. I invited him to our office/factory/warehouse. He came up with an open top sculptural trash can that we name GARBO. It sold well, but was too large for most rooms so he designed a smaller version called GARBINO that was and still is a huge hit. It is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since then we have developed many great trash cans and although many have been copied, we have made some great developments with metal and other materials to keep the category thriving.

Finally trash cans get respect.