Furniture design major Kathy Huang is the first-place winner of the Umbra design competition
Furniture design major Kathy Huang is the first-place winner of the Umbra design competition

Part of being a furniture designer means working with clients to create something that fits their design style or goal. After spending a few semesters making work that you yourself enjoy, it can be a challenge working towards someone else’s goal, while still trying to stay true to your own.

Merick Reed

Merick Reed, U in Cyan, 2014


One of the required courses in MCAD’s furniture design major is Production Design, which helps connect students with various clients and companies to build their skills in designing for clients. Last fall, Paul Rowan, vice president of the Toronto-based design company Umbra, teamed up with George Mahoney’s Production Design class to host a competition involving weeks of designing, critiques, and presenting a final design complete with a promotional video. The winners were announced early this year:

  • First Place: Kathy Huang
  • Second Place: Samuel Busko and Kiley Friese
  • Third Place: Merick Reed

I got to talk with the incredibly talented winners about the competition process, their designs and inspirations, what it was like designing for Umbra, how they tackled intensive critiques, evolving ideas, and staying true to their passions as furniture designers. 

Kathy Huang, V Cabinet, 2015


Hey guys! So, tell me about the class and the Umbra competition?  

Kathy: In our Production Design class we had several clients—Omniforum, ICFF, Blue Dot, and Umbra. With Umbra, it was a six- or seven-week-long process. We had a critique every week with Paul Rowan from Umbra, through Skype, and he would tell us how to alter our designs and things like that to fit Umbra’s style. At the very last critique before we had to have our final design, I had nothing I was really excited about. Every week I kept getting advice on how to change my design, so every week I had something different, and at the end I just had to pick something I liked and make it, so it was a little crazy.

Kiley Friese and Sam Busko, second-place winners


Sam and Kiley: We collaborated for most the projects we did in our Production Design class. During the Umbra brief, we were asked to design something for small spaces. Umbra represents design that is original, modern, casual, functional, and affordable, and it was our goal to create something that had these characteristics. Throughout this project we learned how to further communicate ideas through design, whether that be renderings, presentations, verbal communication, or documentation and video.  

Merick Reed, third-place winner


Merick: Umbra wanted a new, innovative product design. The design needed to address a specific need or pain point within a small-space environment, fit the brand personality of Umbra, and be affordably manufactured. Each student or group went through several weeks of drawing and ideation, prototype construction, and presentation.

Sam Busko and Kiley Friese, HBack Side Table, Walnut and Steel


That sounds like a lot of work and a lot of fun! What did you end up designing for the competition?

Kathy: The theme of the competition was small spaces, so I kept thinking about things I would want for a small space, like my bedroom, closet, or bathroom. Since I’m going to be living with friends next semester, I was thinking about making tables, nesting tables. And I was thinking I didn’t want to have a semi-circle design for them because it’s been done already, so I went with this crazy pentagon shape. I wanted something that had more functionality than normal nesting tables, so they’re also C-tables that fit over the armrests on a couch.

Sam: Our final design was a shoe bench that was made out of wood and steel, with two wooden panels and steel sides and shelving inside. It also has sliding doors, and when they cross in front of each other they create a kind of graphic pattern, so you can still see what’s in there but it’s more hidden. So, the focal point is on the screen instead of the shoes inside.

Kiley: One of the things that Paul mentioned was to solve one of our own problems in our space, he called it a pain point. We live together, and one of the things we struggle with is storage space in our entryway. One of the things we were trying to find was a place to store shoes to open up our closet space, so that’s why we went with a shoe bench.

Sam: We took inspiration from mid-century credenzas. They’re big, and totally unaffordable to people like us, so this is like a miniature version of that style of thing, which is cool to have. It looks big in our designs, but it’s only eighteen inches by like, thirty-two inches. It’s not very big, but it still has a presence with the graphic element.

Merick: My final design was a small wall-mounted cabinet for personal things. It could go in the bedroom, the bathroom, the entryway, it could go anywhere. You could put letters or keys in it, or in the bathroom you could store away more personal items, same thing with the bedroom where it could take the place of a nightstand. It’s a modular piece made up of three parts, so you can add more elements to it or you could make an arrangement on the wall with them that is interesting to look at. I made a prototype of it out of bent aluminum that I painted, and it has little oak knobs.

For my promotional video I actually filmed it on my iPhone, because I have no film experience whatsoever, and I processed it in Adobe Premiere. I kinda stumbled through it, but I had fun learning Premiere.

There were two companies that I looked at for inspiration. The first was Umbra Shift, and Umbra Shift is sort of a side for Umbra where they work with a team of independent designers, so I looked at a number of those designers and what they're doing. I also looked at a company called Alessi, which is a European company that sells all sorts of home accessories. In the Umbra Shift line, there was something I think was called the Cowboy Kettle, which is the old tapered kettle that you would see being used as a coffee kettle for camping. It had an updated design and new finishes, so some of the those angles sort of pertain to what I made. And finally, I just wanted a modern, clean, aesthetic.

 Merick Reed Chair

Merick Reed, Oil Slick


What did you guys learn, or take away, from this whole process? 

Kathy: We had to upload our designs and images to a server the night before the each week’s critique so they could look at it before the critique. It was hard for me to do that, because I usually do everything the night before, so I had to plan and work ahead. Because of that, I had to make my three tables in a week. It was crazy. I made them out of metal AND wood, so a lot went into making them. Time management with this class is very, very, important. And, sometimes if you feel really confident about a design, it doesn't even have to match the [this] competition’s guidelines; at the end I was like, “Alright, this is what I want to do, I really don’t care if I win or not, but I need to make something and this is what I want to make,” and I went for it, and it worked out.

Merick: I learned that a giant international furnishings company, Umbra, does not go through any sort of market study to determine what the customer may want or buy. Instead they look to design schools to, by sheer chance, stumble across something they might like to fabricate and bring to market. I think it was probably a good window for students to see the dysfunctional and often contradictory behavior of a typical commercial client, and to learn how to navigate that type of relationship professionally. 

Sam: I hated the the project when we first started it, but afterwards, and even before we found out we won, I was like, “That was such a good project!” It made us go outside of our comfort zone, and it was different from what we were used to at MCAD. It was nice to have critiques that were sort of scattered that made us go all over the place, like an exercise of some kind.

Kiley: It also challenged us to push presentation, especially with renderings and stuff like that. Before, we kinda used renderings as just informative things, to see the proportions of our designs, and with Umbra we were using them to communicate more. Sometimes just saying something or even typing it out doesn’t get the point across to the client; you need the super nice rendering or picture to communicate the idea.

Sam: The promotional video was really different from anything I’ve ever done for a furniture class, too.

Kathy Huang, Laser Cut Lamp, 2016


What was it like finding out the results of the contest?

Kathy Huang: Oh my gosh, I had no idea I was going to win. During the critique process it seemed like none of my designs were really a fit for Umbra’s style, and I kept thinking too much about it, so I thought I wasn’t doing very well at all. But on the day of the final critique I got some really good feedback and everyone seemed to really like what I had made. I was in Laos when I got the email that I had won. We barely had an internet connection there, but at the end of the day I was able to check my emails and I saw an email titled “Umbra Competition Update” from George, and my name was in the first place spot. I screamed “What!?” I was so surprised, just because they didn’t seem to like what I was doing until the end, but my hard work paid off! I didn’t even remember what the prizes were, so I had to go back to the first email and look it up. My prize was a $500 gift card to Umbra, $500 in cash, and my design may potentially be produced by Umbra!

Sam: We got a gift certificate and some money, and now it's like" Oh man, what do I want to buy?" They do have one product that is really different from anything I've seen. It's this cool cheese grater that's a briefcase, and it catches your cheese inside and measures it at the same time. You know when you're grating cheese and it goes over the sides of the bowl? Not with the briefcase! But, they're out of stock or something right now, so I'm like "No!" Hopefully it comes back soon, I like it. 

Kiley: It was nice to get a prize because we worked really hard!

Merick: It was great finding out the winners, and I think the hard part now is going through everything Umbra has to offer and finding something that I really enjoy. 

Sam Busko, Drift Coffee Table, oak and glass

Kiley Friese, Drip Pendants, aluminum and walnut/maple

Editor's note: Images of the three winning designs are currently under wraps, but once they are available for the public to see they will be added to this story.