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'All hands were on deck:' Ontario company tasked with designing chairs for Pope visit

In a warehouse just outside Toronto, furniture makers put final touches on historic pieces that are to be part of Pope Francis' journey to Canada.
Senior designer Rafael Studart, left, and Quality and Company president Frank Caruso pose with a chair made for Pope Francis to sit in while he makes stops in Canada at their studio in Vaughan, Ont., on Friday, July 15, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

In a warehouse just outside Toronto, furniture makers put final touches on historic pieces that are to be part of Pope Francis' journey to Canada. 

Beginning with wood from maple and oak trees, the designers bring to life sketches that were put to paper a month ago. 

The final products are eight chairs standing roughly 55 centimetres high — about eight centimetres higher than a regular dining room chair — adorned with white padding and a carved wooden crown depicting a swirling image of soaring eagles, salmon and a caribou herd. 

The chairs are for the pontiff to use at each of eight public programs he is to take part in during his Canadian tour, which begins Sunday and ends July 29 with stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut. 

Quality and Company, a custom furniture manufacturer based in Maple, Ont., was commissioned to make the one-of-a-kind pieces.

"We pulled all our resources here to get this to happen … all hands were on deck," says company president Frank Caruso. 

Close to 30 people, from designers to carvers to upholsterers, worked hundreds of hours so the chairs would make it to their final destinations. 

In the end, the team constructed two different designs for the chairs using specs provided by the Vatican to accommodate the Pope's mobility issues. Designers used four different stains and six different fabric and embroidery patterns. It also worked with Métis graphic designer Shaun Vincent to incorporate a logo he designed for the papal visit, which features animals moving in a circle.

"These pieces are going to become heritage pieces to be displayed wherever these events take place. It was very important that each chair had a twist or a unique kind of feeling," says Rafael Studart, senior designer at Quality and Company. 

Studart says the team took inspiration from architecture found in cathedrals and churches. The chairs themselves have simple shapes and arches to reflect that. 

Each item also has an embroidery pattern that is subtle and unique, he added. 

"It makes sense that the chair should be simple, but not simplistic, in the sense that it needed to be. It needed to translate the importance of the moment without overpowering what the main focus is, which is the healing and the reconciliation process," says Studart. 

The theme of the papal visit is "Walking Together." It is to include public and private events with an emphasis on Indigenous participation. It's expected the pontiff will deliver an apology at the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, Alta. — expanding on the apology he gave to Indigenous delegates at the Vatican in April. 

Deacon Pedro Guevara Mann, who is in charge of programming for the papal visit, says it was important to keep the chairs simple and not take away from the message of the visit. 

"It's not about opulence," he says.

"The chairs will be successful if they're not noticed."

This is not the first time chairs have been constructed for a papal visit. Some were made for the Pope's' previous visits to Sri Lanka, the United States and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"It is something that has started happening organically. Because it is an easy gesture of something that can be done not just as a gift to the Pope, but also as a legacy gift that would stay in the place where the Pope visits," says Guevara Mann. 

Guevara Mann says each chair will likely stay in the location where it's being used or nearby. The chair used during a mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton set for next Tuesday is to go later to the Archdiocese of Edmonton. 

The cost of each chair works out to between $6,000 and $7,000. The company covered 90 per cent of the costs. 

"This is such a significant event in the history of the country that it's quite an honour to be a small part of it somehow," says Studart.  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2022. 

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press