Olivetti’s Legacy Is More Than Just Typewriters

The Italian company’s dedication to design over pure functionalism extended beyond just its products into its brilliant graphics.

Designed by Ettore Sottsass, Olivetti’s lipstick-red Valentine typewriter was actually not much of a commercial success when it went on sale in 1969. The reason it stuck around was less because of mass appeal and more for what it suggested: that something as drab and functional as office equipment could also be bright, sensual and playful. MoMA acquired it two years after the launch–the typewriter was an instant design classic.


That dedication to beautiful design extended well beyond Olivetti’s products: The way the Italian company promoted its typewriters and computers was also an art form in and of itself. A new exhibition at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Olivetti: Beyond Form and Function brings to the fore Olivetti’s pioneering advertising and art department and the lasting legacy it has had on graphic and spatial design.

Olivetti was founded in 1908 by Camillo Olivetti, but the company ethos favoring design over pure functionalism is owed mostly to his son Adriano Olivetti, who took over in 1938. “It went beyond just a commercial venture,” says Juliette Desorgues, the curator of the show. “It was a whole interdisciplinary philosophy similar to the Bauhaus, and it extended to all aspects of the company–from products to showrooms to posters,” and even to Adriano Olivetti’s management style. A firm believer in bringing in collaborations across fields, Olivetti hired well-known graphic designers and poets to design posters and write slogans, as well as famous architects to build out its experimental showrooms.

In 1937, the company was one of the first to integrate a graphic design department into its corporate structure. The Italian graphic designer Giovanni Pintori, who worked in the advertising department until becoming the company’s art director in 1950, spearheaded an advertising style that was bold, colorful, and forward-thinking. Pintori designed many of Olivetti’s most iconic posters, and his work was often abstract, ditching straightforward images of typewriters for geometric shapes. He also liked to include images of birds and eggs in his advertising campaigns, metaphors for lightness, portability, and everything new.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, the immediate post-war period, what he was doing very stark,” says Desorgues. “The color was key and it feels really contemporary in that way–the color in the posters was not just used to delineate form, it was used as a design trope in and of itself.”

After he became art director, Pintori reached out to other graphic designers like Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer, Swiss designer Walter Ballmer, American photographer and designer Henry Wolf, and American designer Milton Glaser. The latter three designed posters for the Valentine, all examples of modernist graphic design that no doubt helped cement the typewriter’s reputation as a design object. The campaigns certainly didn’t hurt emotional appeal either: Glaser’s advertisement, for example, featured a Valentine typewriter beside a sweet looking red setter, a detail from the Renaissance painting Satyr Mourning over Nymph. Just like the elegant and loyal dog, the typewriter was set to be man’s best friend.

See more examples of Olivetti’s graphic and display design in the slide show above. Olivetti: Beyond Form and Function is on view at the ICA through July 17, 2016.


All Images: via Institute of Contemporary Arts

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.