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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Olivetti: Masters of Italian Design (RIP)

We owned two of these beauties - the Praxis 48, Olivetti's first electric typewriter
 We did not know when we bought them (it came out in 1964) that it was designed
by Ettore Sottsass.
The Olivetti typewriter was one of the best examples of Italians' love of, and attention to design.  That's why it was easy for us to put aside our disdain for company-sponsored exhibits and enjoy last year's free show of Olivetti designs at the Galleria Nazionale del'Arte Moderna ("Gnam," or "Belle Arti," as we like to refer to it), the state's modern (not contemporary) art gallery in Rome. If we can't keep ourselves out of a Barbie show, we can't be above an Olivetti one, it would appear. But for my rant on sponsored shows, see the end of this post.

The exhibit highlighted design over company and family history.  As its introduction stated: "The exhibition Looking forward does not cover the epic of an enlightened family of Italian industry, but those moments of creative flash of a company that will forever mark the history of design, graphics, technological innovation, communication."  "Looking forward" is somewhat ironic in that Olivetti barely continues to exist, down from 50,000 workers to about 3,000 and no longer a separate company, but part of Telecom Italia. An excellent article in Reuters on what happened to Olivetti - and the Italian economy generally - is here (and see our review of Edoardo Nesi's "Story of My People"). Of course, when these designs were created, they were looking forward, much more so than the designs of other companies. 

The genius of Olivetti was hiring the world's best artistic designers, such as Ettore Sottsass, as well as superb heads of Art Design, probably a managerial position most office machine companies didn't have.

They also hired Henri Cartier-Bresson to document their factories and the factory workers.

 From the factory in Pozzuoli near Naples in 1961, by Cartier-Bresson.
This factory, built in the 1950s with a view of the sea, was architecturally worthy.
The photo looks like it could come out of a De Sica film.
Most impressive in the exhibit were the typewriters and the publicity for them, best expressed in the photos below.

Bright red, and appropriately named "Valentine," this was Olivetti's portable
typewriter, first on the market in 1969, designed by Sottsass with Perry King.
A 1970 advertising poster for the Valentine,
by Milton Glaser. Maybe someone can explain
 the dog and the Roman sandals (see below!)

Another Valentine ad, this one dated 1969 (note the Pop Art
colors), by Adrianus Van der Elst.

Sottsass even designed an office chair as part of a "landscape" of desk and accouterments for the typist, Sistema 45. For an interesting description of the philosophy behind Sistema 45, see here.

So what do I have against sponsored exhibits?  I think they take the curatorial process and turn it over to capitalistic input.  Shows are often sponsored when the sponsors - or donors - want to increase the value of their holdings, be they dresses, jewelry, art work or, in Sottsass's case - in an exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Art - his furniture designs. That exhibit was sponsored by Max Palevsky, who I believe owned many of the objects. (He also supposedly promised his collection of 250 art works to LACMA but then apparently sold it.)  So generally, I think public art museums, not capitalism, should call the shots. My philosophy here is of a piece with my qualms about private art galleries, about which I've ranted in the past.

The exhibit included the following 1959 statement from Adriano Olivetti, acknowledged as the family member who made the company into a great enterprise: 

"Our Community must be concrete, visible, tangible, a community that is neither too big, nor too small, territorially defined, endowed with vast powers, that gives to all the activities that indispensable coordination, that efficiency, that respect for the human personality, culture and art that man's civilization has achieved in its best places."  

Okay, fine, but in a show sponsored by the Olivetti company and the Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti (no doubt some tax breaks there), one is only going to get this level of b.s., no context, no push-back, not even some designs that didn't work, or, better yet, some machines that looked beautiful but didn't work.

Still, it was a good show, and I'm not about to ignore it.We learned something. We looked at wonderful designs. We got to see our beloved Praxis 48 (it's at MOMA too as I recall).


postscript: Our friend Bo Lundin informs us that the Olivetti dog is from "A Satyr mourning a Nymph," by Piero di Cosimo, 1496, National Gallery, London. Here it is:

Thanks, Bo!

Then Bo sent us this parody of the di Cosimo painting:

Thanks again, Bo!


Roberto said...

Olivetti has produced hundreds of fun, modern graphic posters over the years, both for their own products and to advertise museum shows they helped sponsor. A search for Olivetti on the web site opens access to over 600 publicity posters and company photos. I forgive them for a somewhat self-aggrandizing mostra such as this one considering how many sponsorships they provided over the decades to museum shows and public benefit campaigns that had nothing to do with their business.

My interpretation of the Valentine Dog poster by Milton Glaser is that the two loyal companions of the Roman, the dog and the Olivetti, remain at his feet even in death.

Matthew Borenstein said...

In January I bought an Ollivetti lettera 33 here in NYC & I'm having a lot of fun with it !