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New design school director aims to surprise

"Portable Baguette". By Ecal second year industrial design students under the direction of Alexis Georgacopoulos, 2000 ECAL/Pierre Fantys

Taking risks and surprising people will continue to be the order of the day for Switzerland’s premier design school under its new director.

Recently appointed to the helm of the Lausanne University of Art and Design (Ecal), Alexis Georgacopoulos has big shoes to fill following the 16-year reign of legendary Pierre Keller.

Keller transformed the small Lausanne art school into a major design university and relocated it to a former hosiery factory in Renens, which was redesigned by renowned Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi.

The school is now regarded by design magazine Wallpaper as “one of Europe’s leading art and design schools”,  and by Business Week as one of the top ten design schools in the world.

Speaking to following his appointment in July, Georgacopoulos said risk-taking was responsible for sparking the creativity that had been the key to the school’s success.

It will continue to be at the heart of the school’s visual arts, industrial design and visual communication branches, he said.

“We need to surprise our public, as well as our students,” Georgacopoulos  said.

Risks not repetition

Having arrived at Ecal as a student in 1994, Georgacopoulos has been privy to, and part of, the school’s spectacular development.

By the age of 24 he was head of the industrial design department. He is now 35 and has clocked up a number of design successes in his own right.

“We realised very early on that good design results from taking risks and never repeating ourselves,” he said.

He identifies three events that allowed Ecal to become an international player: a prize in 2000 for a portable bread baguette design from the Saint Etienne Design Biennal; 2001’s inventive milking stools that continue to be presented at design fairs around the world; and anti-seismic tables.

“People said we were completely mad, but in fact we were gaining the credentials that would allow us to create innovative partnerships with the companies that wanted to take the same risks as us,” Georgacopoulos said.

Furniture and kitchen makers B&B Italia and Boffi were the first on board, followed by Swiss International Air Lines, Nestlé, Swatch Group and Baccarat to name a few of the international companies which sought Ecal’s expertise.

Partnering up

More recently, Italian design company Alessi asked Ecal design students to develop projects around the theme of the office and home study. The results were presented in Alessi’s showroom during the Milan Furniture Fair in April, and will travel to Belgium as part of Design September Brussels 2011 before heading to Tokyo’s Design Tide fair in October.

“I am amazed by how much enthusiasm and depth was given to analyse the single functions, by the freshness of expression in all proposals and the pleasant quest for simplicity,” said Alessi president Alberto Alessi, adding that the collaboration will continue.

Georgacopoulos said opportunities for students to work on projects with partner companies in the second year was important for their future successes.

“Our students jump in the deep end,” Georgacopoulos said. “They receive immediate visibility and exposure, and often cultivate the relationships that will serve them well when they leave the school.”

Nicolas Le Moigne began his training at Ecal in 2001. Two years later Italian interior design company Serralunga had already started producing his inclined “pot au mur” flowerpot.

“It was unbelievable,” Le Moigne told while on his way to Mexico, where he will be teaching in a design school. “Ecal opens so many doors.”

He is now producing a magnetic candleholder with Atelier Pfister, created by the Swiss furniture store as a launching pad for young designers.

More than design

For Georgacopoulos, Ecal is much more than a design school. As evidence, he cites Ecal’s success at this year’s the Locarno Film Festival, at which three Ecal entries received prizes in the national short film competition.

“3 out of 3! An unbelievable success!” enthused Georgacopoulos. “Ecal is an art school where creativity is used to foster ideas and explore new directions in all areas.”

The short films presented in Locarno were the result of an alliance between the cinema section and Lausanne-based theatre school, La Manufacture. The project will be presented again at the Swiss Cultural Centre in Paris in November.

As for the visual arts, Georgacopoulos pointed to alumni artist Cyprien Gaillard, whose work will be exhibited at the Pompidou Centre modern art gallery in Paris this autumn, and David Hominal, Valentin Carron and Philippe Decrauzat whose work is also exhibited widely abroad.

“These are artists who reinvent themselves every day, often experimenting in new mediums,” he said.

This year more than 400 people applied for the 120 places at Ecal, and Georgacopoulos said his role is to act as something of a talent scout when interviewing prospective students.   

“Under the layers of insecurity, you can usually spot those who have true potential and you start imagining the kinds of projects that they can start on. This is the thrilling part of my new job,” he said.

There are currently 600 students enrolled at Ecal, a fourfold increase compared with ten years ago.

100 professors, some part time

Four bachelor diploma programmes in visual arts, visual communication, industrial design, and Cinema

Five masters programmes (product design, art direction, cinema, visual arts), including one in design and luxury industry

Annual budget: SFr18 million ($23 million)

Alexis Georgacopoulos was born in 1976 to a Greek father and a French mother. He grew up in Athens.

He has collaborated on design projects with B&B Italia, Serralunga, Ligne Roset, Team by Wellis, Boffi, Christofle, Swarovski and Nestlé.

His work has been exhibited at major design fairs and museums including the Milan Furniture Fair, the London Design Museum and the Shanghai MOCA

He became director of Ecal in July 2011.

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