Pope Francis is hip to social media and cares about the environment. His new cool Popemobile is a convertible Hyundai. But the throne that the poor pope has to sit in while he’s in Manhattan is freaking design blasphemy. It’s so ugly, it’s ungodly. How in heaven’s name did we get into this mess?
Pope Francis is one chill dude. So “simple” was the missive from the Vatican, who wanted to keep the pope’s no-frills vibes flowing on his trip. That’s why you won’t see any blingtastic gilded spikes or flashy velvet poufs during this papal visit.
Simple can be great. Here’s the chair made for his Mass in Washington DC, which he’ll deliver at Catholic University:
This was the winner of a student competition. Clean lines, beautiful wood. I really love it.
Here’s the chair he’ll use during his Philly visit, which was designed and made by inmates at a local correctional facility:
This one looks especially nice—a classy six-foot walnut throne that’s certainly befitting a pope.
When he comes to New York City a few days later he’ll sit in this chair from a particleboard-backed dining set found at a Goodwill in 1992:
Pope Francis might want to keep preparations for his visit on the DL but there’s no doubt that the Mass being held in Madison Square Garden this week is like the Super Bowl of religious services. So it’s not surprising that all the planning for the Mass has fallen to “Billy Joel’s lighting designer”—he has his own dedicated lighting designer?—who decided that the papal chair should look like the centerpiece for a VH1 Legends special.
The chair was designed not by a local furniture designer but by a production company in LA that specializes in sets for Tom Petty shows. Not just Tom Petty, though. They design sets for lots of other people you equate with the Pope when it comes to influence and respect: Don Henley, Sarah McLachlan, Third Eye Blind.
Then the chair was manufactured out of plywood by three day-laborer craftsmen at a nonprofit in Port Chester, New York. Hey, that part’s actually very cool! But why didn’t they let them design it, too?
[Update: I have also learned that the cushions for the chair were made by a company in Greenwich, Connecticut. Because there are definitely no upholstery services in New York City!]
Archbishop of New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan unveils the chair at Madison Square Garden
When the chair was unveiled at a press conference earlier this month, its most disturbing quality was revealed: It appears as if the chair is designed to match the existing Knicks decor of Madison Square Garden. Is the wood really supposed to look like it was sliced out of the floorboards of center court and slapped up with a few white vinyl cushions from a nearby luxury box?
The chair is not only an affront to our eyes, it is a sorry representative of local culture. We should all be angered by this monstrosity but if I was a New York designer I would be particularly incensed. First of all, it’s embarrassing that a firm based in California got the gig over any of the thousands of great New York designers who specialize in designing chairs. Not that they even had to build something new. It seems like it might have been a particularly awesome time to explore the city’s exceptional design history. Hey, this pope is all about saving natural resources. Why not find him a great vintage chair reclaimed from a nearby cathedral? How about—gasp—something borrowed!
As a progressive leader on the global front, Pope Francis deserves our most gracious hospitality. We’ve given him the papal equivalent of a La-Z-Boy covered in a thin veneer of authenticity. The pope will be sitting not in an actual chair but in a prop that would be more at home in a basketball-themed man cave somewhere in the Midwest. Then again, I suppose that’s the American way.
Follow the author at @awalkerinLA