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Photo © ECAL-Sami Benhadj
Recognized by Business Week as one of the best design schools in the world, the Lausanne University of Art & Design, known as écal, owes its meteoric rise to a Director who is variably described as intimidating, irreverent, daring, or just plain charismatic. Pierre Keller has probably done as much to revitalize the image of Swiss design as the invention of the Swatch.
“Design schools are the most important centers for the production of ideas”, states Paola Antonelli, the legendary Architecture & Design curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, who says of Keller that he “is a tornado of ideas, an irresistible force in the world of design”. Not bad, for a boy who grew up in Gimel, a small village between Geneva and Lausanne.
A little known fact about Pierre Keller is that he wanted to become an orchestra conductor had his love for the visual arts not dominated his talent for the trumpet. At the age of 20, when he obtained his diploma as graphic designer, he headed off first to Italy, then to the UK and the USA, the beginning of a peripatetic life that has shaped Keller and, later, contributed to shaping his school.
Despite his global network, Keller remains profoundly attached to the region of Lake Leman. Jean-Claude Biver, the man who has built Hublot into one of the most successful brands in the watch business, attributes the accomplishments of his friend to an unlikely paradox: “Pierre Keller embodies what Switzerland stands for today: a Switzerland out to conquer the future, but with its roots still firmly planted in the soil of the land and in the strength of its past.” Keller, he adds, is “instinctively innovative, creative, different and not a little provocative.”
It takes no small dose of provocation to circumvent the normal protocols when hiring staff from abroad, planning a milking stool exhibition (a 2002 project that continues to travel, delight and sometimes shock) or building a new school. But Keller is a man in a hurry. When asked how he gets things done in a country known for the lethargy of its administrative procedures, Keller answers “I keep pushing, and when things don’t get done, I blow my top”. He then adds with a twinkle in his eye “The secret is: Don’t take yourself seriously, but do everything as if your life depended on it.”
Outspoken, convincing and sometimes outrageous, many believe that Pierre Keller would make the perfect politician, particularly since he is a man who needs a cause. There was even talk, during the last Federal elections that the centre right Radical party, to which he belongs, was going to appoint him as their political locomotive. “But I prefer to give orders”, says Keller “Not make laws”.