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HEAD – Genève: More than an art and design school

Established in 2006 with the merger of two schools, the Ecole supérieure des beaux-arts [School of Fine Arts] and the Haute école d’arts appliqués [School of Applied Arts], both over 200 years old, HEAD – Genève has become one of the foremost art schools in Europe in the last ten years. Many factors have contributed to this significant development, including substantial means, a focus on diversity, and a faculty made up of renowned artists and designers, resulting in the ability to attract a high number of very motivated students. A school of this calibre and level of ambition is an undertaking that cannot confine itself to merely fulfilling traditional teaching and research goals. It must envision a broader mission, encompassing its interrelationship with the world, with society, and with the environment in which it operates. More than a school, it must become a key actor shaping the fabric of the city—not just a key cultural player but also a preferred partner, sought after by socioeconomic and institutional spheres.

In keeping with this holistic vision of the teaching enterprise and cross-fertilising models based on lab work, seminars, and business, HEAD – Genève is multiplying its relationships with socioeconomic partners, at whose behest the school carries out forty to fifty commissions every year. Some of these commissions are modest in scope but have a broader significance, such as the creation of a visual identity for a humanitarian organisation, while others take on a complexity and scale that are unusual for a school. In this regard, let us mention the development of the signage for the WTO headquarters, the creation of a booth representing leading watch brands at Basel World, and recently the stage set for Hermès/petit h’s annual sale. These services are developed via the school’s five main departments—visual arts, film, visual communication, space design and interior architecture, and fashion, jewellery and accessories—and generate close to CHF 1 million in revenue. On the design front, these collaborations involve producing graphics, signage and visual identities, conceiving and carrying out architectural work, developing and manufacturing industrial products and participating in event production. In terms of visual arts, the partnerships give rise to undertakings in public and private spaces and to participation in cultural events such as festivals, exhibitions, biennials, and art fairs. So as not to compete, even within its limited scope, on terms that could be considered unfair, the school prices its services at market rates.

These creative opportunities on a 1:1 scale result from a strategy that HEAD – Genève has been developing since the school’s inception, which rests upon three key principles: (i) to do more than what is typically expected from a school; (ii) to play a political role and be an actor in the city; and (iii) to think about teaching in terms of professional outcomes. In contrast to the notion of school as a sanctuary operating in isolation with no direct links to the “real word”, HEAD – Genève prefers the more up-to-date concept of a melting pot of interactions and partnerships that enrich all involved.

School as an integral part of the local ecosystem

An internationally renowned school must reflect the essence of the setting in which it operates. In view of the multifaceted socioeconomic circumstances it must navigate, HEAD – Genève develops its activities at the intersection of these various dimensions. Clearly reflecting its roots in the city of Geneva, in terms of both its many resources and numerous contradictions, the school works both with the WTO and the luxury goods sector as well as with NGOs, organisations that fight illiteracy, LGBTQ groups, associations defending asylum rights, etc. The school is present in all aspects of the life of the city, while itself being inclusive and impacted by all the questions and issues affecting the city. This multidimensional positioning is a challenge, but to be able to afford a glimpse of this “post-school” reality in which students will have to find their place is also a significant pedagogical opportunity.

“Playing for real”: School is no longer a simulated environment

Time spent as a student in an arts and design school is often one of utopian enthusiasm. It is a protected environment enabling students to sharpen their skills and discover their own language. This invaluable aspect of higher education is paradoxically at the source of the frightening chasm that opens up at the feet of recent art and design graduates: the reality of the creative endeavour in an actual professional environment.

Working on concrete projects in collaboration with organisations outside the school constitutes a way of addressing this situation, of anticipating it. It offers an experience that is not typically available in a traditional pedagogical framework, integrating the issues of creation, invention, and personal creativity into an actual socioeconomic reality. Indeed, while the projects are conducted under the supervision and with the support of faculty, fulfilling the various mandates and commissions is always and above all the responsibility of the students. Any ideas presented to clients are theirs and they own the entire research and creation process. In this manner, students perceive the trust placed in them by the clients and the school and from that, they draw a singular motivation and a pride that is invaluable to their future career. This real-world creative experience also gives them legitimacy and makes them particularly attractive on the job market: They graduate with a portfolio including projects that have actually been realised, in partnership with significant economic actors, and of which they are the creators or co-creators. Finally, these collaborative creation processes amongst students, who are encouraged to establish work teams, promote a balance between competition and solidarity—indeed, many executive teams originally constituted in the school setting subsequently set themselves up as studios or collectives, often multidisciplinary, in part as a result of these real-world experiences conducted while in school. Contrary to certain preconceived ideas, these commissions do not, a priori, eliminate the freedom intrinsic to the creative process or the utopian element that students fundamentally seek: Not only do these commissions retain a fundamental element of freedom, they constitute a carefully measured ingredient in an educational undertaking that involves very diverse work situations, from the research lab to the professional production studio.

The attractiveness of schools for socioeconomic partners

As brands sometimes entrust us with significant aspects of their future or their image, it is interesting to ask what makes HEAD – Genève such an attractive partner. First and foremost, however, let us emphasise that engaging in a partnership with the school is never a function of minimising costs. The school’s success must thus be based on something else.

The distinctiveness of a school like HEAD – Genève resides in its students’ particular critical insight and singular outlook and in the multiplicity of their ideas. In the mad rush of research and innovation, these very young creators, still unscathed, are able to sense the shape of things to come. This promise of the unexpected is complemented by the vast diversity of approaches and visions that is fostered by the simultaneous work of several teams on the same project. This richness is directly related to the school environment and cannot be offered by a traditional professional creative entity.

The pedagogical aspect of these collaborations is the source of another advantage noted by our partners, namely, a greater level of involvement of the clients in the creative process. They have to engage, explain and elaborate on the details of their project, its characteristics and development, etc. This situation is much more challenging and thus much more interesting and stimulating for the clients.

Finally, it is important to mention the symbolic added value of this type of collaboration. Historically, Switzerland has developed a very strong connection between the business world and professional training. It is gratifying for a Swiss entrepreneur to be involved in training young people and it is without undue pride that we can assert that the involvement of HEAD – Genève has become an assurance of quality in this respect.

Freedom to contract: Never undertake commissions for the wrong reasons

HEAD – Genève receives quasi-daily inquiries from potential business partners, and the school turns down more commissions than it accepts. The Swiss educational system grants the school the immense privilege of not having to depend on business collaborations to survive, which means that the school can avoid finding itself reliant on its partners. HEAD – Genève is thus never tempted to accept a commission or working conditions with which it is not entirely comfortable. This radical freedom is essential to the pursuit of the pedagogical undertaking to which the various commissions and mandates contribute. Engaging in a partnership thus depends strictly on its relevance to the curriculum and to the students. Commissions are taken under consideration only with regard to the degree of stimulation, creative challenge and particular experience they may offer students and teachers. In our vision, questions regarding the image, renown, or prestige of a partnership are much less important and financial considerations are not even part of the picture.

This means that, ever vigilant, we are always in control, and contrary to any mode of subjection, we are fully able to impose our ethics and the moral principles that underlie our position as artists and designers and responsible participants in social life. 

About the authors:

Jean-Pierre Greff, Director of HEAD – Genève since its creation he led in 2007.

Roxanne Bovet, alumna of HEAD (2016), assistant editor.

Image credits:

Nouveau Campus HEAD, bâtiment H © HEAD – Genève, Michel Giesbrecht

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