24 November 2016

A design school like no other: Calum Douglas' photographic essay of his first month at ECAL


24 November 2016


“The air we breathe on the ECAL premises is already so impregnated with enthusiasm and ideas that small sparks are enough to provoke wonderful explosions, and my role consists more of blowing on the flames…” says renowned fashion photographer Paolo Roversi within ECAL: A Success Story in Art and Design, reflecting on his time teaching at Ecole cantonal d’art de Lausanne.

The design school ECAL is a university with a reputation that is revered the world over. It’s the Oxbridge, the Harvard or the MIT of the design world, producing graduates with work of the highest standard, in both an aesthetic and theoretical sense. It’s students originate from all over the world, but to join the prestigious ECAL alumni is far from simple; upon application candidates are subject to aptitude tests and thorough portfolio reviews before gaining entry.

Earlier this year Calum Douglas joined ECAL’s masters in photography programme. As he swapped the Scottish highlands for the Swiss alps, Calum documented the transformative experience of moving to a new country, as well as settling into one of the world’s most prestigious universities. The result is a photographic diary that provides an insight into the most stylish first day at school you could imagine.

Once you’ve been accepted into a creative institution such as ECAL the pressure in no way diminishes, but develops. However ECAL should in no way be considered elitist – their ethos is to encourage through participation. It simply provides its students with the best in order for them to become the best themselves. All housed in an old hosiery factory “brilliantly designed into an art school” Calum explains, “with purpose built facilities and bright open, blank canvas studio spaces.”

The building itself is larger than necessary, allowing space for the students to work, experiment, or just bounce around their future ingenious ideas. Inside, its studios are full of the tools young creatives crave. “The facilities are fantastic” Calum comments, “state of the art equipment such as Phase One medium cameras and the latest lighting gear and print facilities.” The ECAL campus is an environment purposefully built to enhance students efforts and grant their creative wishes.

The course itself is affected by a wealth of visiting practitioners, filling lecture halls with eagerly awaiting students. “The staff are very impressive” Calum writes in his first week, “everyone is young and practising, all masters of their fields. Even the director looks in his mid-30s!” The youthful personality of ECAL creates a dialogue between its students and staff. Despite their being no student union on site Calum explains that the courtyard is full of conversation, “After class, a lot of students and staff will buy a couple of beers, sit in the sun, and chat as equals.”

But to fully take advantage of these educational elements students must be sufficiently organised. Independence is a characteristic expected of the ECAL scholar. In the photography chapter of the celebratory monograph ECAL: A Success Story in Art and Design, tutor and photographer Natacha Lesueur evaluated that, “In this school a lot of fields and outstanding and personalities who are there to teach rub shoulders, it feels quite natural that all the ingredients participate at a high level of expectation." This expectation is formed into a progressive programme, “The day at ECAL starts very early, like the rest of Switzerland” elaborates Calum, “timetabled classes start at around 8.15 most mornings.” From there the day hits the ground running, “Our days are so busy with workshops or meetings with lecturers that shooting itself is often done in the evening. Currently my day ends at around 8pm.”

When discussing Calum’s expectations of the course the photographer explained that, “My main goal when starting the course was to start a new project and develop the idea over the two years of the course. Even over the past month of being here, I feel I will achieve this and more.” Within the photographer’s first month he was set five separate briefs, “some commercial and others personal or conceptual.” Despite their difference in creative outcome the photographer observed a consistent factor in each.“They push us to be aware and question what is happening around us” he says. As a result of stimulating students to create pioneering work, ECAL’s alumni includes numerous individuals who liberally explore the area that lies between fine art and photography, including brothers Gilles and Vincent Turin, Laurie Paulus and Leo Fabrizio.

To influence and inspire students ECAL tutors regularly engage the students with travel, whisking them around Europe and beyond on global trips. Within Calum’s first week it was announced the class would be taken to Berlin in the following weeks to fulfil a brief on the theme of changing the city, focusing on architecture through photography. The result is a collaboratively curated publication by both tutors and students, “We worked together in teams to produce a limited edition art book for the European Month of Photography, in collaboration with CO Berlin.”

“The trip was incredibly intense, definitely a work hard, play hard mentality!” Calum explained, “We would be in the studio from 9am and it wouldn’t be uncommon to finish at 3-4am the following morning.” Despite this, the thoughtful friendship between students and tutors relieves the pressure, “Our course director Milo cooked for us one night which was good fun and very impressive.”

Each of these individual elements collate together to assemble an art school that is unparalleled. Conversation is encouraged, age and cultural backgrounds are embraced rather than being characteristics of separation, equipment, whether it be major or minor, is always on hand. Most importantly, hard work is invested in being a step towards developing profound creativity, moulding students into the designers that will build a thoughtful world around us of exceptional aesthetic.

In asking Calum if anything in particular has surprised him during his first month at ECAL his response was wholeheartedly, “Everything! The course really has surpassed my expectations. We’ve already been given so many opportunities to work with industry and there are more to come.”


Left : Matheline Marmy, Par dégradation, 2016 Right : Lise Sutter, Sans titre, 2016

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) is the senior editor at Insights, a research-driven department with It's Nice That. Get in contact with her for potential Insights collaborations or to discuss Insights' fortnightly column, POV. Lucy has been a part of the team at It's Nice That since 2016, first joining as a staff writer after graduating from Chelsea College of Art with a degree in Graphic Design Communication.

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