Olivetti Design Standard-bearer

Olivetti Lexikon, Poster 1953
Olivetti Lexikon, Poster 1953

Olivetti is an Italian office machinery and furniture firm, located in Ivrea, Northern Italy.

For a large part of its history, Olivetti has followed the highest aesthetic standards in its business activities: architecture, interiors, advertising, graphics, corporate branding, as well as its manufactured products—office and computer equipment and office furniture. It has also played a leading role in funding major exhibits, has been the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and has established an enlightened corporate social welfare programme. 

Beginnings

The Olivetti office machinery company was founded in 1908 by Camillo Olivetti, who designed its first typewriter, the M1, produced by assembly-line methods. Early on, its works were housed in fortress-like brick factory buildings. Olivetti commissioned Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini to design a complex including factory, workers’ housing, and hospital. The accommodation was completed in 1939 and the factory in 1940. In 1940-41, its nursery school was replaced with a new building by Figini and Pollini. From 1938, Olivetti’s son Adriano was president of the firm and initiated the policy of using consultant designers. 

The interior of the town nursery, Olivetti
The interior of the town nursery, Olivetti

Notable Designers

Among the first wave of influential artists to work on the innovative face of Olivetti was the Swiss-born Bauhaus graduate Alexander (‘Xanti’) Schawinsky, who worked on the graphic and product design of Olivetti from 1933 to 1936. He was joined by Marcello Nizzoli, a graphic designer and exhibition designer. He became the company’s chief design consultant in 1936, the same year that artist and graphic designer Giovanni Pintori joined the company. Both Nizzoli and Pintori focused on architectural, product and advertisement design, which was also one in which the graphic design company Studio Boggeri played a significant role.

Early Products

Products of this time included the 1935 Studio 42 typewriter by Schawinsky, Figini, and Pollini, and the 1940 MC 4S Summa calculator by Marcello Nizzoli. The rounded, sculptural appearance of Nizzoli’s Lexicon 80 typewriter from 1948 was very much in keeping with the widespread contemporary interest in an organic form that could be seen in other well-known Italian designs such as Pininfarina’s Cisitalia Berlinetta from 1946 or Gio Ponti’s La Pavoni coffee machine from 1949. Several typewriters followed, including the Praxis 48 typewriter of 1964 (with Hans von Klier) and the bright red Valentine portable of 1969 (with Perry King, see King-Miranda Associati). 

Olivetti Lexicon typewriter
Olivetti Lexicon typewriter
Olivetti Summa 15 desk top calculator designed by Marcello Nizzoli
Olivetti Summa 15 desk top calculator designed by Marcello Nizzoli

Mario Bellini, another leading figure in Italian design, created many designs for Olivetti from the 1960s to the 1980s, including the striking orange Divisumma 18 calculator from 1972 with soft keyboard and the Praxis 35 typewriter from 1980. 

Radical designer Michele de Lucchi, who was named design consultant to Olivetti in 1979, became head of the design department in 1992, focusing on the design of electronic devices and computers, such as the 1993 Filos 33 notebook and the 1995 Echos 20 laptop. 

Office Furniture

Olivetti was also noted for its design of office furniture, prominent examples of which included the Arcos office furniture system developed by BBPR in 1960, the groundbreaking Synthesis 45 system of the 1970s by Ettore Sottsass and the Ephesos system of 1992 by Antonio Citterio. Olivetti followed its commitment to a cohesive and design-rich culture by ordering leading companies and designers to shape its interior through the commissioning of buildings by prominent designers. For example, the BBPR design studio designed the company’s offices in New York in 1954, the Olivetti showroom in Venice in 1957, and the Paris offices in Gae Aulenti in the next decade.

Valentine Portable Typewriter, 1969 Ettore Sottsass Jr., Designer Perry King, Collaborator
Valentine Portable Typewriter, 1969 Ettore Sottsass Jr., Designer Perry King, Collaborator

Recognition

In 1974, the American Institute of Architects recognised the effectiveness of the company’s corporate identity strategy. Olivetti was awarded the Industrial Arts Medal ‘for the history of excellence in the communication of its image by product design, corporate relations, architecturally distinguished manufacturing and merchandising facilities and the funding of various social, educational, leisure and cultural initiatives for its employees and the general public.’

Source

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Oxford University Press. (2004). A Dictionary of Modern Design (1st ed.).

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