Born of a little trash talk

Times Staff Writer

WALK into any housewares store and you’ll probably see cool, colorful trash baskets in dozens of shapes and sizes. What their tags don’t reveal is how these once-homely utilitarian objects were transformed into emblems of modern design, or how one sexy little number named Garbo started it all, surprising skeptics with sales of 7 million. “We could never have planned for such success,” says Paul Rowan, co-founder of Umbra, which makes the Garbo. “We just wanted to produce a better-looking basket, something not as ugly as everything else around.”

What was around back then in 1994, remembers Karim Rashid, who designed the Garbo, “was a ubiquitous rectangular black plastic can with absolutely no character” -- and few low-cost alternatives. Adds Rowan: “Wastebaskets at the time were clunky plastic, most with thick ribs down the sides that allowed them to be stacked. People tended to hide them in their homes. They weren’t attractive enough to be on display.”

Rowan asked Rashid to study the market and come up with some thoughts.

“I did at least 50 renderings of receptacles,” Rashid says. “I felt that banal objects need life, they need presence, they need to make unpleasant tasks more pleasant. I immediately thought about a more sensual object than we’ve had before, one that is seductively round, wider at the top than at the bottom so that it seems to undulate. Something with a wide, beautiful, inviting mouth to gracefully accept waste.”


He designed that mouth with handles placed higher than the receptacle’s lip.

“A person lifting this basket, even when it’s full, would never come in contact with its contents,” Rashid says.

He also designed a rounded bottom that prevents liquids or sticky waste from accumulating in the corners.

Rashid named the basket Garbo, he says, as a play on the word “garbage” and an allusion to the film world’s enduring glamour girls, who had all the curves his basket was to emulate.

Rowan says the design was not an immediate hit at the Toronto-based offices of Umbra. The piece had its skeptics.

“We were kind of reinventing an object,” Rowan says. “It was such an unusual shape, and it would be so costly to make the molds, with no idea whether the things would sell.”

Rashid also suggested that the baskets should be translucent, which Rowan says was too out-there for some. “ ‘Who wants to see their own trash?’ we were constantly asked.”


Even after Umbra made the first models, company officials couldn’t decide if they were beautiful or not.

“It looks familiar to you now because it has become generic, but when we first did this, no one had done anything like it before,” Rowan says. “Some people said it looked like a body cast. That really scared us. You have to have guts for something like this.”

The first Garbos went into stores in 1996. Two million sold quickly, Rowan says, and it became apparent that smaller models would sell even better for confined spaces such as bathrooms and home offices. So Rashid came up with smaller versions, Garbinos and Garbinis, which still are sold at Bed, Bath & Beyond, the Container Store and other spots around the world.

The design also is in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

“We have 11 of them, stacked, in different colors. They look great that way,” says Christian Larsen, a curatorial assistant in the department of architecture and design. Their sinuous shapes, the economy of material and the humble, mass-produced quality of a fine design is something the museum celebrates, Larsen says.

Hundreds of manufacturers have attempted imitations, but the genius of the design is that it’s impossible to copy exactly without running afoul of the law, Rowan says. The elements of shape are so unique and so accurately described in the patent that “it’s become a case study for attorneys,” he says.

Rashid, now world-famous for thousands of well-received home furnishings, still exudes a proud papa’s fondness for his Garbo. “I gave them a certain lightness, an ephemeral quality,” he says. “I wanted them to seem to float, to de-stress a space with their simplicity and color. That I succeeded still makes me glad.”