Above: The versatile and modular ‘Umbo’ shelving system designed by Kay Leroy Ruggles for Directional Furniture, New York, 1970. Photo: decoist.com
The ‘Umbo’ shelving system, a bit of space age plastic fantastic first produced by Directional Furniture of New York in 1970. For many years the Umbo shelves were misattributed to Italian designer Joe Colombo and understandably so. In fact the modular and customizable shelving system was designed by American Kay Leroy Ruggles who worked as one of Directional’s in-house designers.
By the 1960’s many European designers and manufacturers began experimenting with plastics as a reliable material in furniture manufacturing. Plastics like acrylics and ABS could be molded and cast into almost any shape and in bold, daring colors. It was a period of tremendous change not only in design but socially and the buying public was eager for something new. Directional sensed this and starting producing a limited run of plastic furniture including the Umbo shelving system.
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Made from ABS plastic and available in four colors (white, orange, yellow, and brown) the inventive Umbo system came with interlocking forms which, via a pin and hole set up, could be snapped together in any configuration the customer needed. What’s most remarkable about the shelving is that – without any fasteners at all – its astonishingly study and stable. Because of its strength and versatility the Umbo system was met with success however it was only on the market for a few years. The Oil Crisis that began in 1973 drove the price of petroleum products – necessary in the production of ABS plastics – up considerably making the shelving too expensive to continue production. Today they are collected but can be quite pricey.
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