Design & Make

Olivetti Typewriter

by David Vega March 05, 2010
ReadOlivetti Typewriter

When Camillo Olivetti, the founder of a growing Italian typewriter company, sent his son, Adriano, to the U.S. in 1924 to study American industrialism, did he realize that he would be plotting an entirely new course for the future of his little endeavor?

Probablemente. Young Adriano’s visit to the Remington Typewriter Co. may have convinced him that productivity was a function of an organizational system and that industry must play a part in creating a more pleasing environment for the people it impacted, from factory worker to end user. Little is known about his visit there, but Adriano came back with a new vision to integrate labor and life outside of the workplace into one experience. It was a simple philosophical premise that had far-reaching consequences, one that the empathetic young man would soon apply to the product development and to the community of thinkers who would help forge the company’s design aesthetic.

Olivetti advertising, 1973.

After taking the reigns of Olivetti, Adriano merged the Italian modernist principles that guided his manufacturing philosophy with humanistic concerns for the modern worker worldwide. Olivetti’s primary goal of harmonizing labor with life led him to found a “Community Movement” and most certainly influenced the design of products used by office workers as well. These products strive to communicate with the public through bold design aesthetics and would transform the seriously technical into the tactile and sensual.

Olivetti Lettera 22, 1955.

Olivetti encouraged independent thinking in its designers and hoped it would trickle down to the public as well. Marcello Nizzoli’s creation of the Lettera 22 typewriter (1950) was a compact and portable pup in a world full of elephants, introducing the idea that one wasn’t tethered to the desk all day. It eventually won the Compasso d’Oro prize in 1954 and was chosen by the Illinois Institute of Technology as the best design of the last 100 years.

Olivetti's "Valentine" typewriter.

It was Ettore Sottsass, however, that ultimately linked Olivetti and the typewriter in the minds of cult followers. The Valentine (1969), which attracted a new design-savvy generation of on-the-go typists, pushed the notion that productivity could be a happy (and even fun) affair. In fact, Sottsass considered the Valentine an “anti-machine machine.” Visionaries such as these, given adequate space to explore, transformed an otherwise mundane office with beautiful tools that invited the worker to be stimulated with color and form.

Olivetti Lettera 36, 1972

Like his American counterpart George Nelson, Olivetti’s goal of breathing life into the office was echoed in advertising campaigns ripe with bold concepts and color which were successful in a constantly evolving marketplace. High concept marked the postwar years, pushing the idea that work could be play, and that it should always be creative. Like Nelson and Herman Miller advertising, Olivetti campaigns portrayed the workplace as a fluid environment, much more inviting to the modern worker than the prewar office, heavy and oppressive.

Olivetti Lettera 22 instruction manual. (Image courtesy of Puppies and Flowers)

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