In the 1950s and 1960s Olivetti promoted itself in Italy and beyond with a dazzling range of publicity. Lead by Giovanni Pintori and Marcello Nizzoli, the company created a unique reputation for excellence in graphic and product design and a powerful brand identity. Half a century later the advertising and poster designs look as fresh as when they were new. It remains astonishing to observe the ingenuity with which the intractable form of the typewriter was so fluently transmuted into a vast portfolio of modernist graphics. Every visual element that could be derived from the paraphernalia of typing, including numerals and letterforms, was put to work in an impressive sequence of designs that placed Olivetti products at the forefront of contemporary design around the world.
The manufacturing base was at Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont 35 miles north of Turin. Founded in 1908, the company quickly expanded to the point that Ivrea became a company town of 14,000 employees at its peak, complete with modernist styled worker housing and factory buildings. It survives to the present as a product badge in the ownership of Telecom Italia, a business that mopped up the last of Olivetti in 2003. In 2014 there were 580 staff employed in Ivrea – the current product offer comprises colour copiers, cash registers and a 3D printer. Olivetti’s demise was gradual but irrevocable. A range of electronic typewriters, desk-top calculators and basic word-processors was overwhelmed by the competition from a new wave of IT suppliers in the 80s and 90s and a transition to digital competence proved impossible. But with its design-lead philosophy, obsessive attention to detail and presentation plus the innovative use of coloured finishes, Olivetti in its prime was a blueprint for the future success of Apple.
In New York the Museum of Modern Art was the first institution to collect Olivetti products as exemplars of the modern movement in 1952. This modest selection of Olivetti graphics is supported by a feature from Graphis magazine 59 (1955) and some pages from a book published in 1996 by Somogy in France (“Et aussi des crayons”).