Sunday, 6 July 2008


All images courtesy & © écal

High octane creativity and innovative partnerships

When Pierre Keller was appointed Director of the Ecole cantonale d’art de Lausanne in 1995, he was given three goals to attain: compete for university status, increase the school’s reputation in Switzerland and build its profile abroad. But his nomination was not well received, so the first thing he did, says Keller, was “to get rid of those who got in the way.”

In thirteen years, the school has grown from 150 to 450 students (of which a quarter are foreign), has become a university and continues to obtain star ratings, here and abroad. Along the way, it has also acquired spectacular new premises, a textile factory converted and restyled by Bernard Tschumi, the world famous architect of Swiss origin. “L’écal’s contribution to the inventiveness and future of design is now universally recognized” acknowledges Yvette Jaggi, the former President of Pro Helvetia, the branch of the federal government that promotes Swiss culture abroad, as well as former Mayor of Lausanne.

Pierre Keller requires of his students that they be “curious, curious and more curious”. When he travels the world, he remains on the look-out for talented designers whom he attracts to Lausanne by “paying and dining them well”. Nevertheless, the average age of the teaching staff is no more than 33 years. A former écal student, Sophie Dépery, a partner of the up-and-coming Life Goods design team, says that the influence of foreign professors, many of them famous in their own right, has not only given the students a comprehensive knowledge of contemporary design, but has also helped them develop their own artistic personalities.

One of the keys to the écal’s success is innovative partnerships. Frédéric Bernardeau, the director of the eponymous fine Limoges porcelain manufacturer, was so delighted with the écal collaboration this spring for the Milan Furniture Fair that he has become a strong advocate for industry to invest in art education (and not just technology). He fears however that the over-structured system in France cannot allow for the freedom that generates so much creativity in écal students and which he feels is vital to maintain many trades, including industrial ones, alive.

The same thought process appears to have motivated the creation of an EPFL + ECAL Lab, although a Keller-perpetrated myth indicates that it was initially devised to ward off the undesired occupation of free space by the social services of Renens, the suburban town where l’écal is newly installed. Be that as it may, Keller contacted Patrick Aebischer, the Director of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (known locally as EPFL) to suggest a collaboration between designers, architects and engineers. The resulting Lab has been entrusted to Nicolas Henchoz, whose mission, no less, is to prove that innovation is capable of “reinventing links between research and society”.

Initiating new projects is definitely what excites the Director of the écal most and the most recent to date is the launch of a Masters in Luxury and Design which, unusually for Switzerland, will be entirely financed by sponsors, including Hublot and Nestlé. No longer a school dedicated only to industrial design, écal is a place where ideas are allowed to happen.

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