Lesson

The Olivetti Valentine typewriter

Milan

29 November 2012

With the manufacture a week ago of the last British-made typewriter - the Brother CM-1000 - Disegno took the opportunity to look back through the history of typewriters. Our eye settled on the classic Olivetti Valentine, designed by Ettore Sottsass and displayed as part of the Venice Architecture Biennale earlier this year.

“Dear Valentine, this is to tell you that you are my friend as well as my Valentine, and that I intend to write you lots of letters,” says the user guide of the familiar red typewriter.

This purposefully heartwarming greeting sets the tone for Ettore Sottsass' typewriter. The blood-red Valentine was a fun, light-hearted and smooth-operating symbol of the 1960s Pop era, and its use of bright, playful casing for a piece of traditional office equipment was arguably a precursor to Apple’s 1998 Bondi Blue iMac. "When I was young, all we ever heard about was functionalism, functionalism, functionalism,” said Sottsass. “It’s not enough. Design should also be sensual and exciting."

The Valentine - created for the Italian brand Olivetti - was designed in collaboration with the British designer Perry King and entered production in 1969. It was not a commercial success. The Valentine was technically mediocre, expensive and failed to sell to a mass audience, yet still became a design classic. Valentines can be found in the permanent collections of London's Design Museum and MoMA, the typewriter being accepted into the latter just two years after its launch. The product's critical success was unhindered by its functional limitations because its design focused as much on its emotional connection to users as it did on practical ease of use.

Sottsass set out his stall early on. One of the initial advertising campaigns for the design featured posters by the graphic designer and founder of New York magazine, Milton Glaser. Glaser used a detail of Piero di Cosimo’s renaissance painting, Satyr Mourning over Nymph. In the poster, the Valentine typewriter is placed next to a red setter, an elegant, rambunctious dog; man’s best friend. The suggestion was that Sottsass' portable accessory could be just as loyal and convivial. How the product performed was arguably irrelevant. It was about how it made you feel.

The Valentine was available in white, green and blue, but its most famous form was red: lipstick-bright ABS plastic casing, with black plastic keys and white lettering. “Every colour has a history,” said Sottsass, “Red is the color of the Communist flag, the colour that makes a surgeon move faster and the color of passion.”

The distinctive colour was calculated to bring vibrancy and fun into the office world of the 1960s. Sottsass said that the Valentine "was invented for use any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly coloured object on a table in a studio apartment." The ideas that later manifested themselves in Sottsass’ 1970s Memphis movement - the Milan design group known for its brightly coloured postmodern furniture - were already evident in the Valentine typewriter. Sottsass gave a standardised piece of office equipment personality.

Although, the designer would later dismiss the Valentine - comparing it to “a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up” - its design was an elegant summation of his belief that successful, long-lasting product design was not solely connected to performance, but rather owed as much to the emotional force of a design.

Yet despite Sottsass' reservations, the Valentine's popularity abides. The Italian pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, curated by the architect Luca Zevi, proposed a reading into Italian design. Part of the exhibition, titled The Four Seasons — Italian architecture, from Adriano Olivetti to a Green Economy, examined the production of Olivetti typewriters. Here, the Olivetti Valentine took pride of place, with Zevi suggesting that the ideas that initially formed the typewriter could still be useful today.

The continuing fascination is not surprising. The Valentine, with its distinctive colouring and marketing as a loyal, devoted companion, is a characterful object, the likes of which are rarely seen in modern technology. How many mobile phone user manuals would speak to you like you were an actual person?