Typewriters Have A Connection To Modern Architecture? Who Knew?


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By Emily Rinaldi

Olivetti began as an Italian office machine manufacturer and grew into an international corporation, transforming into the leader of modern industrial design. Today, there is not only a renewed interest in reexamining the products they produced, but also a new movement, among contemporary industrial designers, in emulating Olivetti’s groundbreaking corporate philosophy that revolutionized the industrial design of the post-World War II era.



Camilio Olivetti founded the company in 1896 and engineered their first typewriter, the 1911, M1. From there, the company expanded production with Olivetti designed machine tools along side typewriters. Camilio’s son, Adriano Olivetti, became the general manager in 1933 and drove the company to new heights. The company employed designers whose work, today, is considered revolutionary; working with names such as Marcello Nizzoli, best known for the Lexicon 80 (1948), Giovanni Pintori, who designed the portable typewriter Lettera 22 (1950), Ettore Sottass and Perry King, whose partnership produced the Valetine typewriter (1969), as well as Mario Bellini, designer of the Divisumma 18 (1972).

Image(right): Valentine Typewriter Advertisement. Credit: kaufman-mercantile.com

Adriano Olivetti also reinvented the company’s mission to encompass not only the production of office machinery, but to establish a company that, as a whole, makes a statement about design itself. He pronounced, “Design is a question of substance, not just form. It’s a tool a company uses through its products, graphics, and architecture to convey an image that is not just simply appearance but a tangible reflection of a way of being and operating.” As Adriano imagined, Olivetti is remembered not only for its beautiful typewriters, but also for its coordinated design ethic that permeated anything and everything that the name Olivetti accompanied.

Image (left): Lettera 22 Instruction Manual Credit: Ed Cornish

Thus, Olivetti extended its efforts into advertising and architecture. In addition to designing the Lettera 22, Giovanni Pintori would also author the Olivetti logo. The company commissioned the contemporary modern architects of the day to design all of its factories, offices, and showrooms. In 1934, Adriano sought out international modern architects Gino Pollini and Luigi Figini to design the first expansion to the company’s original factory in Ivrea, Italy. Le Corbusier proposed a study for the Olivetti Electronic Center in Millan Turin (1962), reimaging the integration of factory and office space. In 1966, Olivetti commissioned Gae Aulenti to design the Olivetti Shop in Paris. That same year, Louis Kahn designed the Olivetti-Underwood Factory in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Kahn constructed the factory out of 72 pre-stressed concrete united that lock together in an 8x9 grid.

Companies like Apple Inc. are taking their cues from Olivetti’s post-war legacy. Not only does Apple Inc. produce visionary products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, but it also follows Olivetti’s lead in establishing Apple as a leader in architectural design. The firm, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, has won many awards for its designs of Apple’s worldwide retail stores. Apple’s second New York City store, on Fifth Avenue between 58th and 59th Streets, is probably the best example of Apple’s coordinated design ethic. The entryway to its underground retail concourse of the General Motors Building is a glass cube that punctuates an open plaza, rising above the earth.

Currently, the Denver Art Museum’s featured exhibit is called Olivetti: Innovation & Identity. The MoMA also has several Olivetti designs exhibited in its permanent industrial design collection.

Image (right): Apple Store, Fifth Avenue. Credit: Roy Zipstein