Small wonders of design: The umbrella

Susan Spencer highlights some everyday items that are so well-designed, they're hard to improve upon:

Sure, it keeps you dry, but have you ever really looked at your umbrella?

"Most people take it for granted," said mechanical engineer Dave Kahng. "They don't realize the intricacies that are involved to make that simplicity."'

When it comes to design, says Kahng, the case is open and shut: the umbrella is brilliant: "There's no engine, no motor, no electricity, nothing. It's just one simple movement. Eight arms extend itself. And it's a huge surface area."

"And all it wants to do is protect you," said Spencer.

"It does ONE thing!" laughed Kahng.

umbrellas-susan-spencer-dave-kahng-620.jpg
Correspondent Susan Spencer with Dave Kahng of Davek Umbrellas. CBS News

It's been doing that one thing for thousands of years. "Some people say it originated in China; some people say it originated in Egypt. But it was originally used for shade. Umbra is the Latin word for shade."

Each year, Americans buy more than 33 million umbrellas -- all shapes, all sizes. Kahng says they'd buy far fewer if the things lasted longer.

"We've all been there; we've all had an inverted umbrella," Kahng said. "We've all had the fabric rip from the ribs."

"Why is it embarrassing to have an inverted umbrella?"

"You look foolish?" Kahng laughingly suggested.

"It's better to buy one high-quality umbrella versus an endless stream of cheaper replacements," he said.

So he turned his obsession into a business: Davek Umbrellas.

"Every now and then you'll see an umbrella just lying there in the street," said Spencer.

"Oh yeah. It's sad. A fallen comrade," said Kahng.

But he claims that does not happen to HIS umbrellas -- meticulously made of steel, high-quality fiber glass, and aircraft-grade aluminum, and costing $50 to $350.

"This is like the Rolls-Royce of umbrellas," he said.

For $125, Kahng even has an umbrella with a computer chip in the handle, making it hard to lose.

"If you accidentally leave this umbrella behind and you walk away 30 feet, you'll get a notification, an alert on your phone, telling you that you've left it."

"Your umbrella is calling you!" Spencer said. "'Please, remember how much I cost! Don't leave me here!'"

But forget the price: it is, after all, a masterful design.


More Small Wonders:


For more info: