When Function Turns to Art
Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine Typewriter for Olivetti, 1969
I was reading this interview with Sottsass by a student doing research about his connection to the Beat Generation writers, but from a design perspective this was his most interesting point: he tells the story of a typewriter he designed for Olivetti, who wanted to make a very cheap typewriter that was stylish enough to compete with all the Japanese home appliances that were ruining their market. The goal was to create a stylish appliance for the everyman. But when Sottsass finished the design, they said “this is art!” and they made it in expensive materials and now… it’s in an art museum.
DG Looking at your output I think there’s one piece in particular that seems a tribute to that “lost” generation of writers, not so much because of its function, which suggests writing, but for the content and forms it evokes. It’s the “Valentine” travelling typewriter, which I see as a tribute to the Beat Generation and your experiences at that time.
ES The design, yes, but unfortunately it turned out to be too expensive. You’re right, though, the idea was to design a machine as if it were a biro, a tool for everyday life, not a symbol of elegance and power. The story is that Olivetti had realised that Europe had been invaded by portable machines made in Japan or China that cost half the price of theirs. Before the “Valentine” there was Olivetti’s “Lettera 22”, designed by Nizzoli. Nizzoli was an artist and sculptor in the traditional meaning of the terms, because he tried to shape everything, he was a creator. At Olivetti they were scared stiff. They wanted a low-cost portable typewriter. They thought: “Let’s get rid of lower case and leave just upper case like in telegrams,” and “Let’s get rid of the end-of-line bell and simplify everything”. Mechanically speaking there wasn’t much to simplify, it had already been cut to the bone. So I was really pleased. I said: “Fine, let’s make a machine to sell in the markets in the suburbs. Let’s pile them high.” Everyone was happy with that. Then I did this very popular design, and the advertising for it proved very popular, too. I made Olivetti spend tons of money because I sent photographers all over the world to take photos, even at the North Pole, though Olivetti didn’t want to stoop so low. So although the original idea was to make it from Moplen plastic, the kind they used for buckets, we made it from ABS, which cost five times more. Moplen was fine, because it was already a “coarse” material. It was also slightly elastic so it could get knocked about without breaking. “Absolutely not!” they said, “Lets make it from ABS and put the lower case back!” The result was a machine whose design was silly in way because it had been conceived with a certain purpose in mind, to be popular and affordable by everyone, but it ended up being dear. This still happens to me now. The more things I do, the more they end up in art galleries. Research costs a lot and in the end there’s this dichotomy between what you do and where it fits into society.