In the 1950’s Olivetti created one of the most iconic typewriters in the world. The founders also invented the co-working space and laid the vision for a human city. Italy and the rest of the world are still catching up.
Production started with 20 employees and 20 machines per week near Ivrea (Torino) in 1908. More than a decade later, Olivetti shipped 13,000 machines a year. It was the brainchild of engineer Camillo Olivetti whose vision back then was revolutionary.
“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 birth of an icon
The first typewriter – Olivetti M1 – was available in 1911. Yet the market was not ready for the novelty. Typewriters were an import, and rare. It was not a familiar sight from an unknown company. Camillo Olivetti commissioned the first poster.
Artist Teodoro Wolf Ferrari paints literary giant Dante Alighieri in a pose of authority issuing what looks like an order – buy M1, the typewriter made by the first Italian factory Olivetti in Ivrea. It was a stroke of genius using the testimonial format. In the ‘20s, they would use it again for the M20 with the caption, “if our father could see the Olivetti typewriter, they’d shout ‘it’s a miracle’.”
Olivetti became synonym with machines for the office that looked good and worked well starting in 1933. Camillo’s son Adriano took over marketing for the company and its products. The style and culture he pioneered for the company became a rare example of industrial design in Italy and Europe.
In the ‘30s Adriano took over advertising, introducing photography. He also worked on product design, releasing two new models – the Lexikon 80 (1948) and the first portable typewriter, Lettera 22 (1950).
He worked with engineers, but also Italian artist Marcello Nizzoli to deliver a streamlined style.
Products as fashion
It was the Apple of the day. The company designed state-of-the-art machines that were also attractive. The world took notice. MOMA, the New York Museum of Modern Art showcased both typewriters in their exhibit entitled “Olivetti: Design in Industry,” in 1952.
Adriano approached the company’s marketing as an extension of the products. This was quite innovative at the time. He commissioned artists like Giovanni Pintori to create stunning lithographs to print promotional posters.
The message focused on the product’s elegance, targeting a new customer segment. Most of the communication is visual, showing women journalists reporting from a tennis match. Others suggest the portable model is so light and versatile, you can take it outdoors and in your travels.
The ads themselves became art pieces. Private collectors and modern art museums all over the world acquired prints. In 1969, Brigitte Bardot was photographed leaving a hotel in Rome and holding Olivetti’s Valentine portable typewriter.
It was the very same original design by Ettore Sottsass the company reissued and my mother bought twenty years later. Beautiful, and very easy to use.
Creating a space for humans
Olivetti workers were paid more and inside its factories conditions were better than at other companies at the time. New buildings had almost entire walls made of glass, to look outside. They were designed with cafeterias, playgrounds, rooms for debates and film screenings.
Libraries in the building were stocked with tens of thousands of books and magazines. An extended network of social services constructed outside included nursery schools, Ivrea’s first hospital, and mountaintop retreats for workers’ children.
Adriano helped finance the first masterplans for the city and surrounding area. Instead of the large tower blocks we’re accustomed to seeing in industrial cities and grey buildings, he filled Ivrea with bright, avant-garde architecture.
“The giant factories, the overcrowded metropolises, the centralized and monolithic states, the mass parties … are without a doubt the leviathans of our time, also destined to disappear to leave room for forms of life that are more agile, more harmonious and, in one word, more human.”
He died suddenly in 1960. But his quality of vision is very much alive today in co-working spaces and new urban renovations throughout the world.