Laurent Ungerer's daunting task of creating a new identity for a Parisian icon

Laurent Ungerer, the founder and CEO of c-album, on creating visual identity for cultural spaces, including the iconic Notre Dame, when to respect history and when to disrupt it.

Editorial Team17 Jun 2024

“I was petrified,” ​​Laurent Ungerer​ says​, ​​recalling his reaction when he was approached to create a new visual identity for the ​​Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  


“I felt like I had all of history on my shoulders in a way.”  


Gutted by a devastating fire in 2019, the cathedral has since been the object of an extensive renovation and rebuilding effort. Included in the rebirth of the cathedral is a new visual identity, which is where Ungerer, despite his initial reservations, enters the picture.  


Laurent and c-album designed a fresh, modern logo for the 400-year-old acting troupe. He said the organisation had “no design identity, no legacy” and was open to doing a new sign.


Born in Germany to a family of artists (his late uncle was the award-winning French writer and illustrator Tomi Ungerer), he spent his childhood immersed in art and design, often visiting different museums around Europe.  


“I was very familiar with this environment early on,” he remembers. “So, it was natural for me to do something with art.” 


He attended the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs (ENSAD) in Paris, before joining the agency of his mentor and professor, Jean ​​Widmer—​ ​the famous Swiss graphic designer, who had studied under the direction of former Bauhaus member Johannes Itten.  


Ungerer describes Widmer as “a pioneer” in the branding and design for cultural institutions, recalling his iconic logo for the Centre de Georges Pompidou that is composed of black stripes crossed by two zig zags that portrays the building’s façade.  


Working alongside Widmer , Ungerer spent the next decade developing visual branding for some of France’s most celebrated museums and cultural spaces, including the Musée d'Orsay, the Institut du Monde Arabe and the French National Library.  


​​He later founded his own studio, c-album. “c-album is the Latin name for a lepidoptera given by the naturalist Carl von Linnaeus, due to a characteristic spot on the hindwings in the shape of a small 'c' of white colour (album means white in Latin). A typographic butterfly of sorts,” he explains. “I chose the butterfly symbol in memory of my grandfather, a man of culture (which he passed on to me) and a great collector of butterflies.” 


​After establishing the studio, he continued to create new visual identities for prestigious cultural institutions both in France and abroad. C-album’s extensive client list includes the Comédie-Française, the National Museum of Natural History and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, as well as the Musée Picasso, for which he designed the graphics for its reopening 10 years ago.​     ​​ 


C-album created a whimsical jellyfish design for a project for the National Museum of Natural History.

Notre Dame, however, was his first foray into a liturgical space. 


“You can’t imagine that it’s possible,” he says, recalling his earlier hesitation during the first meeting with the diocese of Paris. “Because it’s too huge, it’s too complicated.” 


Ungerer tackled this new challenge by first morphing into a historian of sorts, taking a deep dive into the history of both Notre Dame and France’s cathedrals. 


“The first step was a bit of a pilgrimage to see a lot of churches and cathedrals in France, in order to have an understanding of the history, the complexity,” he explains. “For the first year or so I didn’t even touch a pencil.” 


Over the course of his research, Ungerer discovered French cathedrals lacked a cohesive design ​programme​. 


“The shape and the design of messages aren’t developed; volunteers are designing everything,” he observes. “There is no craftsmanship or visual identity for the churches in France.” 


Developing a design ​programme​ for Notre Dame started with what Ungerer describes as “a treasure hunt.”  


Ungerer is responsible for creating a new visual identity for Notre Dame before the cathedral has its grand reopening later this year.


Ungerer and his team “were inside the cathedral, discovering the [cathedral’s] treasures to see if things could be modernised,” he says. “Little by little we developed a ​programme​. Notre Dame typeface.” 


For the new typeface, which he will unveil at this year’s ​Knowledge of Design Week​​​​​​​​​​ in Hong Kong​, Ungerer and his team drew inspiration from the work of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc​ ​—​ ​the architect and ENSAD professor in charge of renovating the cathedral in the 19th century after it had fallen into ruin.  


“He was an architect, an ornamentalist, and also in a certain way a graphic designer because he designed some models of writing that were a mix of the Middle Age and modern styles,” Ungerer says. “And we based our work on Viollet-le-Duc’s models in a certain way.” 


Ungerer believes that an understanding of the past isn’t only essential for renovating historic treasures, but is also necessary when modernising a heritage institution, which often requires a designer to present a strong argument for the reasons for a fresh approach. Defending a new take on a piece of cultural heritage requires a deep understanding of all that has come before. 


“We don’t need to have total respect for history or for tradition,” he elaborates. “Tradition is nothing more than modernity in a certain time. Sometimes you are part of the continuity [of history]; sometimes you are disruptive.” 


Ungerer cites the graphics he developed during the renovation of the Musée Picasso more than a decade ago as one example of disruptive design. The museum first opened in Paris in the mid-1980s with a collection donated from Picasso’s heirs and a visual identity that included a logo with a portrait of the legendary artist.  


Following the merger of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN) with the Grand Palais in 2011, c-album was tasked with evolving the visual identity of this new entity, now known as RMN-GP. The studio designed an ecliptic crescent reminiscent of the Grand Palais's glass roofs, around the symbol “m,” transforming it into a logo of light.


Under then-director Anne Baldassari the old design was completely scrapped and Ungerer developed the museum’s current black and white logo in which certain letters appear to slide away from each other.  


“It’s not to duplicate his way of drawing but to keep a distance from him,” explains Ungerer of his process, adding that the design was created for a museum, not for Picasso the man. “We started something completely new, even though Picasso is somebody very important in our heritage.” 


More than 10 years on, Ungerer is getting ready to work on another Musee Picasso project​ ​—​ ​this time creating a typeface for the museum’s communication materials​ ​—​ ​something he actually contemplated a decade ago. 


“I remember when the Musee Picasso reopened we had other ideas, and we couldn’t develop them at that time,” he says. “We had to put them aside like putting something in a box in the garage, and then 10 years later you go back to the garage and open the box again.” 


Similar to his vision with Notre Dame, the latest project at the museum is both a new beginning and the continuation of the monument’s story.  


​​“This is a recent project, but not recent in a certain way,” he says. “Just a new step. A project is never finished. Never. We have to continue the story.” ​​​ 


​​​Ungerer will participate in ​​Knowledge of Design Week 2024 in Hong Kong from 25 to 27 June during which he will give a ​​keynote ​​presentation named “​​A ​​Timeless Voyage​​:​​ ​​Crafting Notre Dame’s New Brand Identity​​”. Also, he will join Nathalie Crinière, the founder and CEO of Agence NC, in a panel discussion focusing on crafting exceptional experiences in exhibitions and diverse projects.​​​​