Olivetti, a show in London celebrates its pioneering graphic, product and spatial design.

Before the slick Apple stores, and the clean and smart aesthetic of its products, there was Olivetti. The Italian manufacturer, often overlooked nowadays by tech and design enthusiasts, was ahead of its contemporaries in terms of technology, advertisement, and product and spatial design.

Olivetti didn’t sell futuristic objects. Quite the opposite, instead: it sold typewriters, calculators, and early computer prototypes.

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Where it differed from its competitors at the time -from 1908 up until the late 1960s- was the understanding of its founder, Camillo Olivetti, that a good product, in order to be sold to the masses, needed to be much more than just functional. It needed to be appealing and it had to be advertised in a way that captured people’s post-war fast-changing spending habits. A belief that his son Adriano, once he took the helm of the company, shared dearly.

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An exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) of London, Olivetti: Beyond Form and Function, curated by Juliette Desorgues in collaboration with the Associazione Archivio Storico Olivetti, aims to highlight Olivetti’s legacy through a selection of photographs, films and ephemera.

Although compact, the show focusses largely on Olivetti’s core advertising and product design production under the helm of creative designer Giovanni Pintori, which spans almost  thirty years from 1936 to 1967. Once entered the cosy space which hosts the exhibition, five iconic typewriters -among which there is Ettore Sottsass’ Valentine (1969) and Marcello Nizzoli’s Lettera 22 (1950)- welcome the visitors.

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Above them a chronological timeline draws the company’s history from its beginning, in 1908, until present. On the other side of the room, hanging on the walls or displayed in cabinets, original advertising prints and photographs illustrate the futuristic settings of Olivetti’s showroom and offices around the world. Among these, the Olivetti showroom in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, which comprised three large cubic structures that referred to the various chemical compounds found in metal components used for the typewriters created in the late 30s; Olivetti’s showroom in Venice designed by Carlo Scarpa in 1958-59; and the Barcelona (1950) and New York one (1954) created by Milanese studio BBPR. 

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Most of all, the show highlights the creative direction under Pintori’s guidance.

Pintori joined the company just one year before the creation of the graphic design department which opened in 1937. Recently graduated, alongside Adriano Olivetti he contributed in shaping brand identity by conceiving the logo and art directing the graphic design department from 1940 until his retirement. Under his tenure, the brand gained international accolades by winning numerous prizes. These years were the most prolific and innovative and saw Olivetti and Pintori collaborate with Italian and international household names in the field of art, graphics, architecture, and literature such as Ettore Sottsass, Bruno Munari, Milanese studio BBPR, Gae Aulenti, Louis Kahn, Le Corbusier, as well as former Bauhaus students Herbert Bayer and Xanti Schawinsky.

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Besides graphic and product design, the Italian manufacturer also paid attention to architectural design, an aspect considered pivotal to the success of the company’s identity.  Olivetti, thus, commissioned to his designing team the Olivetti Synthesis office furniture series, which were mainly used in Olivetti’s own head-and worldwide branch offices and showrooms (and from which Apple’s Steve Jobs took inspiration for his product and spatial aesthetic after a visit he paid to Olivetti in the ‘80s, they say!).

Info:

Olivetti: Beyond form and function

ICA – Institute of Contemporary Arts – London

Until 17th of July

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