A sneak peek at Notre Dame Cathedral’s noble, simplistic and calm furniture

My favorite city in the world is Paris, the City of Light. I would (much) rather spend a bad day in Paris than a good day anywhere else. So unrelentingly beautiful, so vibrant, so richly endowed with bistros and bridges, art and architecture. Paris’ unofficial motto seems to be amor vincit omnia: Love conquers all. I’ve taught college courses in Paris for 15 years, developing a deep affinity for the city, its people and its culture along the way. 

So it was on Tax Day in 2019, April 15, that I returned from the classroom to my office to learn that the Notre Dame Cathedral had become an inferno. Several of us gathered in front of the TV to tearfully contemplate the potential loss of a French national treasure dating to the late 12th century. It felt a little too much like 9/11.

Anchoring the Île de la Cité in the geographic center of the city, Notre Dame has among its many features a rose window on its south side that I count as one of the more beautiful geometric designs I’ve ever seen. Of course, the cathedral’s flying buttresses, which thankfully were not damaged, are, along with the Eiffel Tower, among the most iconic of the city’s many architectural highlights.

Sinuous minimalism

Notre Dame is flowering again, with a re-opening on schedule for December next year. We can sneak a peek inside thanks to the furniture and “liturgical objects” that will populate five rooms or spaces of the cathedral, pieces that dazzle in their “noble” simplicity (the archbishop’s adjective), visual integrity and eloquent calm. 

Designed by Guillaume Bardet of Paris’ Galerie Kreo design firm, the pieces embody what he calls “sinuous minimalism,” which is a perfect summation of the collection’s harmony, peacefulness and equilibrium. These pieces aptly prompt thoughts of God, heaven, infinity and the underlying, fundamental order in the world, even the cosmos.

The small collection comprises chairs (the bishop’s “cathedra” and side chairs), altar, lectern (or “ambo”), baptistry and tabernacle (in which the consecrated hosts are kept). The pieces “embrace organic shapes that evoke a profound sense of permanence and spiritual devotion,” he said, according to notes from Galerie Kreo introducing the pieces. 

The main altar, with its flared, curved geometric shape, will be placed at the crossroads of the nave and transepts “like a stone taken from the earth for sacrifice, preparing itself as a fraternal table for the Lord’s Supper,” according to the diocese that includes the cathedral. On the right, the celebrant’s chair and two side chairs; to the left, the “ambo,” or lectern, from which readings are presented.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

“Permanence” speaks to the timeless quality of Bardet’s objects that don’t so much sit or stand as float in the wide-open spaces in which they are situated. Embodying clarity, the liturgical furnishings are somehow understated and, at the same time, connotative of hushed reverence. There is nothing sharp, demanding or hard.

The dark bronze and relatively small sizes of the furniture beautifully contrast with and punctuate the cathedral’s vast, mostly stone interiors, spaces the furniture inhabits like acolytes. The bronze is so dark that it’s easy to imagine the furniture pieces in a dark hardwood, such as walnut. On first glance, I thought I was looking at walnut or mahogany. 

Bardet designed the T-shaped lectern first, according to the studio’s notes, and the piece signals the flow, circularity and what you might call modesty that characterize the collection. These are religious values, as well, which is of course no coincidence. 

The baptistery, too, features “ritual circularity,” according to the notes.

The archdiocese said that one of the highlights is the baptistery’s placement at the entrance to the cathedral, near the portal of the Last Judgment, to “open the door to the mystery of Christ.” 
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

“The pieces should embody the essence of the past, embrace the present and welcome the future,” Bardet is quoted as saying in the studio’s introductory notes. (An email request to speak with Bardet hasn’t yet been returned; August traditionally is the month that many, if not most, Parisians leave the city for vacation.) “They should resonate with conviction for Catholics and captivate the attention of non-Christians.”


I’m not convinced they “embody the essence of the past,” whatever that might be, but they very much lean into the future. This non-traditionalist, nostalgia-free approach is a non-factor for me and seemingly a breathtakingly beneficial posture for the Catholic church, but it is a bone of contention for some well-placed Catholics. 

One Catholic tweeter called Bardet’s designs reminiscent of 1970s Ikea. Another said the pieces connoted the Addams Family, which I think is unfair. 

Art historian Pierre Téqui, writing in the French weekly Christian Family, lamented the “omnipresence of abstraction” in Bardet’s objects, which at least acknowledges the collection as a unified whole. That all of the designs came out of one head, Bardet’s, and now belong together in a sacred space I believe is uncontestable. They are a symphony of minimalism, a style that depends on the spaces, atmospherics and environments that surround its artifacts.

A closeup of the celebrant’s chair, or “cathedra,” and side chairs.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

For his part, Bardet said, “I wanted natural forms for a work on the immutable.” He succeeded in my view, because of the furniture’s ethereality and, perhaps because of this transcendence, their quiet reverence and sincere sanctity. 

It’s likely Bardet saw these criticisms coming, because in late 2020, plans for the cathedral’s interiors were leaked to the newspaper Le Figaro. These earlier versions were roasted for being too abstract and for renouncing tradition. This critique elicited a press release from the Archdiocese of Paris reminding everyone of the bigger picture. 

The intent of the cathedral’s new interiors, according to the press release, was to “accompany all visitors, believers or not, on a path able to initiate each person to the very meaning of that cathedral — that of the celebration of the Christian mystery.” The diocese wants a “coherent whole,” a gestalt to replace the menagerie of styles and pieces that were tragically destroyed in the 2019 fire. 


In the literature from the Archdiocese accompanying the introduction of several of the designs, the aim of the liturgical objects was one of “noble simplicity” in pieces that should be “respectful of the place, its history, its strong symbolism.” 

“The ensemble that [Bardet] has built seems to me to have qualities that combine well with each other and make it a coherent project, even if modifications will be made to give it even more unity,” said Laurent Ulrich, archbishop of Paris, in the introductory “dossier” that heralds the new objects. “The chosen material, bronze, enters into a frank dialogue with the stone building. It is the first shock.”

Bardet’s lecture, or “ambo,” testifies to minimalism’s capacity to draw attention to shape and geometry, volume and color, each in isolation — nothing concealed.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

Apparently, placing the baptistery at the entrance of the cathedral in the nave where traditionally I’ve seen it in most European churches is a big deal. Because of the baptistery’s new location, in Ulrich’s words, “as soon as you enter the cathedral you open the door to the mystery of Christ.”

Bardet’s altar, a gravity-defying block that floats as it tapers to a vanishing point on the ground, is like “a stone taken from the earth for the sacrifice,” Ulrich said, presenting itself “as a fraternal table for the Lord’s Supper.”

The archbishop showed an impressive degree of interest in the seating for parishioners and visitors, the 1,500 chairs that will populate the nave. He selected Ionna Vautrin to design the interlocking oak chairs, which will be manufactured by the French furniture manufacturer Bosc

The congregants’ chairs, 1,500 in all, were designed by Ionna Vautrin in solid oak with an openwork backrest.
Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris

“Easy to handle, they will bring a necessary lightness effect in the cathedral,” the dossier notes explain. “Discreet, robust, linked in rows, comfortable, these chairs must be able to integrate into the architecture of the premises and demonstrate the highest standards in terms of design.”

The Artistic Committee that has overseen the designs said it wanted Vautrin’s chairs to be “silent” in order to give primacy to Bardet’s liturgical furniture, in particular the altar that “manifests” the presence of Christ in the nave’s center. 

Who is Guillaume Bardet?

Bardet began as a furniture designer but has branched out into architecture and even urban planning. He’s also a fellow academic, teaching at the National School of Decorative Arts in Paris. Bardet worked with Galerie Kreo for the first time in April 2019, a collection of pieces in bronze that included an oblong table with uneven feet, a large pendant light, a free-shaped coffee table, a slender bench and a series of anthropomorphic stools. His work in bronze heralded in some ways the project to come for Notre Dame.

Guillaume Bardet

He’s also known for a continually expanding collection of liturgical objects, the first “chapter” of which was shown in 2017 at the Convent of Tourette near Lyon, a complex designed by Le Corbusier. Called “The Last Supper,” the Tourette collection comprises cups, glasses, jugs, goblets and bottles, all in dark bronze and arrayed on a large table surrounded by 13 stools.

As for Galerie Kreo, founded in 1999, it is one of the more influential furniture galleries on the international scene, defining itself as a “research laboratory dedicated to the production of contemporary pieces in limited editions.”

I can’t wait to see them in person. 

Brian Carroll

Brian Carroll covered the international home furnishings industry for 15 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He chairs the Department of Communication at Berry College in Northwest Georgia, where he has been a professor since 2003.

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