A history in 5 typewriters


Jason Hook

25th May, 2017

Some companies manage to establish such a strong identity, and bring such a consistent sense of style to their work, that their influence extends far beyond their product. They become a part of popular culture, a punctuation mark in design history. Their products help to define the look of different eras. They become iconic.


Olivetti is one such company, and its history can be told through five typewriters.


Even today, looking at a classic Olivetti design stirs the soul, and not purely through nostalgia. One can easily imagine Olivetti typewriters transforming the workplace in the same way as Apple computers many years later. Indeed, the parallels between the two companies are striking. In both cases, the form and function of their new technologies work hand in glove, and the design as much as the engineering define their products in the popular consciousness.


Camillo Olivetti’s first M1 typewriter was presented in 1913 at the Universal Fair in Turin. It set the template for Olivetti’s design programme, with Camillo stating: ‘A special value is laid upon the form of the machine. A typewriter must not be a showpiece for the salon, overloaded with tastelessness. It must look sober, and at the same time work elegantly.’ The M1 meets the brief, a redoubtable and upright machine adorned with a flourish of gold type. It also began a company tradition of outstanding advertising, with a Teodoro Wolf Ferrari poster depicting Dante Alighieri pointing at the machine.


By 1932, when Olivetti’s first portable typewriter, the MP1, went into production, Camillo’s son Adriano was turning his father’s design vision into reality. He created a Development Office that recruited the best architects and graphic artists, and declared: ‘Design is the soul of every product.’ The MP1, by Aldo Magnelli, was known as the Ico after founder Ingegnere Camillo Olivetti. Its simplicity, Art Deco styling and exquisite detailing made it so successful that it continued in production until 1950. The Ico was promoted in bold and playful adverts that used simple graphic metaphors for technological processes – the start of 30 years of brilliant poster designs by Giovanni Pintori that have endured as surely as the products they advertised.


The third of Olivetti’s flagship typewriters arrived post-war in the form of the 1948 Lexicon 80 by Marcello Nizzoli. A preoccupation with the modern and innovative design of everything from the architecture of the offices to the keys of the typewriters was gaining worldwide recognition for the Olivetti brand. With the mechanical components now hidden away beneath the smooth curves of the aluminium casing, the Lexicon 80 is an icon of Modernist simplicity, with its rounded olive-green shell creating a piece of office sculpture. This was a golden age for Italian design, and the lines of the typewriter are wonderfully reminiscent of the original 1946 Vespa scooter.

Nizzoli’s next masterpiece was the 1950 Lettera 22 portable, which in 1959 was voted by the Illinois Institute of Technology the best design product of the previous 100 years. Combining Olivetti’s characteristic minimalism and sculpted lines with the flourish of a brightly coloured tab key straight out of a Pintori poster, its iconic status was reinforced by celebrity endorsement. Leonard Cohen wrote his songs and poetry on a Lettera 22, and Italian journalist Indro Montanelli became so associated with the machine that one features in his monument in Milan’s public gardens. It’s interesting to consider that portable design in 1950 weighed in at 4kg, compared to the 300g of a Macbook Air. But the aesthetics had an enduringly light touch. In 1952, MOMA staged an exhibition entitled ‘Olivetti: Design in Industry’, which celebrated the company’s ‘single high standard of taste’ – a unified aesthetic concept that achieved ‘order and simplicity in all details’.


By 1969, times had changed, and Olivetti had itself been instrumental in developing the electronic technology that was revolutionising office equipment. But there was still time for Ettore Sottsass to deliver the iconic Valentine typewriter so emblematic of the Pop era. In bold lipstick-red, and encased in plastic, Sottsass’s use of colour, form and styling elevated the Valentine typewriter to the level of design statement and fashion accessory – even as it flashed the bright-red warning light of its own obsolescence and signalled the end of the typewriter age.


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