UM Project - Redefining Design Semiotics

With Francois Chambard of UM Project

Upending established design principles and subverting accepted industry standards constitute Francois Chambard’s raison d'être. Chambard founded the self-proclaimed “indie band” design studio UM Project in 2004. Reflecting both origin and result, with the studio’s “U” representing user and “M” denoting maker, respectively, the firm is in fact an indie darling as evidenced by the brand’s accolades and loyal devotees. UM’s collaborative foray into wallpaper with Flavor Paper in 2017 resulted in “Conduct”, a circuitry-laden aesthetic masterpiece earning Best of NYC x Design. Chambard himself is a product of converging influences: French by birth, he graduated from Marseilles Business School before studying at  RISD and ultimately embarking on a career in brand design strategy with major brands Nike and BMW. Chambard’s keen grasp of design, gradually accumulated over a diverse portfolio of projects, pronounces itself in the singular yet eclectic vision UM brings to its varied partnerships. Collaborating on everything from pocket knives with French brand Opinel in France to unique theremins with Moog for Odd Harmonics, Chambard adapts his practice to suit new functions, unlocking elusive design secrets in the process. 

 

UM Project’s final products reflect a wide spectrum of aesthetic elements, from Bauhaus and Le Corbusier to the Memphis Group. Chambard mines a weighty treasure trove of design principles, from ancient to modern and industrial to craft, coalescing each influence into a careful, well-balanced whole. His keen observations infuse the brand’s futurist-oriented objects with timeless elements recurring consistently throughout decades of design trends. The end product fuses these disparate influences together, forming captivating stylistic medleys. His objects privilege neither function nor form: instead, Chambard carefully roots each step of the design process in mediating these two aspects of the process so neither comes away the victor. UM Project’s results speak to Chambard’s fearless style of design vocabulary elocution and calculated execution across the storied history of design narratives.


While many finished design products are oriented toward seeking solutions, UM Project is just as happy introducing quandaries where solutions could otherwise emerge. “Creating something unusual is important.” Chambard notes. “It’s key to escape the expected - I find myself creating new problems, rather than solving existing ones.” Integrating function into his inventive aesthetic vernacular is only a portion of the overall design visualization process for UM. An equally important facet of production lies in defying convention by creating a distinctive look and feel that evades easy categorization. Chambard may focus on design specifics supporting distinct object functions for stools or bureaux, but there is ultimately little purity present in the formal appearance of his designs. “‘Designs now solely re-appropriate existing signs and symbols,” Chambard explains. “We strive to implement a new design vocabulary: hybridizing vintage and futuristic, handicraft and industrial.” Re-inventing existing signs and symbols by hybridizing recurring elements into previously inconceivable arrangements is UM Project’s forte The result? An entirely new code of style indicating a shift in the semiotics of previously canonized design language.

UM Project often emphasizes utopic, visionary visual elements yet many objects which the studio produces are decidedly functional. UM Project’s Holy Stool, a best-seller for the atelier, results from the simple combination of wood and matte lacquer. The simple yet striking combination of wood grain with sleek monochromatic surface indicates the studio’s quirky yet complex grasp of complementary materials. The visceral impact of the studio’s modern re-imagining of this practical seating object elicits timeless, enduring style.


Chambard continually pursues unexpected juxtapositions of surface and scale. Where subdued colors appear in the studio’s objects, surprising combinations of textures and clever re-appropriation of industrial materials keep product lines intriguing. UM Project’s Ultraframe selections feature a striking matte black container with an exterior made of cork. The minimal exterior opens to reveal an astonishing cobalt blue interior. This dual exposure to monochrome and intense color saturation pushes boundaries stylistically with a clever, subversive flourish. “The shop is my kitchen,” Chambard notes of his experimental creations. Observing how simple shifts in fabrication to incorporate unexpected elements determine the impact of the final product, he sums up the charm that keeps brand devotees clamoring for the next UM product. “I consider form and function, adding myth to romanticize the finished object.” Blending previously un-integrated elements into the studio’s new concepts, UM Project reinvigorates contemporary design language for tomorrow’s canon. The success of UM’s products lies in the studio’s consistent ability to innovate and shed established conventions, dispelling with the commonly reiterated phrases flooding the contemporary market.

Practical considerations concerning function can often overtake the imagination integral to conceptualizing unique objects, even for the most discerning creator.

Instead of seeing practical constraints as limitations, UM Project celebrates the parameters of an object’s purpose by reconsidering the aesthetics of form. Nowhere is this more evident than in Patch, the newest line from the atelier for the 2018 iteration of Salone del Mobile this April in the new Ventura Future show. Operating within a decidedly human friendly and design-driven vocabulary, the objects in Patch blend sustainable design with ethereal, otherworldly configurations. Repeated grids and patterns elude to the idea of the patch as gridded structure, while the solar power connectors integrated into the finished products refer to natural aspects embedded in the environmental garden “patch”. “Our work features simultaneous and seamless blends of look and purpose,” notes Chambard. “Pushing boundaries by viewing solar panels as a material to produce exciting design pieces allows UM Project to mythologize contemporary technology.” In a present saturated with distraction and repetition, UM Project’s careful considerations of design’s rich past precipitates an intriguing alternative viewpoint, driving forward new design paradigms - and, we hope, more escapes from the ordinary.