Olivetti Typewriters: Italian Design, New York City Intrigue

Creators
Hannah Begley, Sophia Dahab, Julie Hunter, and Bobby Smiley

Transcript
From 1954 until 1970, the Olivetti Typewriter showcase drew in passers-by with a Lettera-22 typewriter bolted to the sidewalk outside of their sleek, modern showroom. Located at 548 5th avenue, the showroom was designed to reflect the aesthetic brand of the C. Olivetti and Company Ltd., an Italian manufacturer of typewriters and business machines.

The Olivetti Company has its roots in Ivrea, Italy, where it was founded by Camillo Olivetti in 1908 with an initial capital of 350,000 lira and 20 workers. The first Olivetti typewriter, the M1, was released in 1911 at the Turin Universal Exposition, and though its mechanics were not significantly different than those of American typewriters, its design set it apart from the rest. Over the coming years, the aesthetic of the Olivetti Company continued to grow into renown, largely due to the influence of Camillo’s son, Adriano.

Adriano was raised and educated in Italy, and began working for the family company in 1924. However, due to the political situation in Italy and Adriano’s opposition to Mussolini’s fascist regime, his father elected to send him to the United States in 1925 to learn about American industrial power.

Upon his return to Italy, Adriano reorganized the Olivetti production system and doubled the man-hour output in a span of five years. In 1928, Adriano opened the company’s first advertising office, which attracted the attention of prominent designers. These new partnership opportunities led to innovative typewriter designs, such as the M40, released in 1930. In 1932 Olivetti went public, initially capitalized at 13 million lira, and by the mid-1930s, half of the typewriters used in Italy bore the name Olivetti.

Throughout the 1930s, the company continued to strengthen its productivity through worker efficiency and excellent employee benefits, including increased salaries and services. Adriano gained creative control and became head of the company in 1933, and his interests in architecture, design, and community planning had a great impact on the business model and product design of Olivetti.

In the post-war economic boom, they began opening showrooms across Europe and the Americas: New York City in 1954, Venice in 1959, Paris in 1960, and Buenos Aires in 1968. The sleek, well-designed atmosphere of the Manhattan showroom aroused the curiosity of many New Yorkers, and the enormous front door developed a squeak worth mentioning in the New Yorker Magazine. In addition to the Lettera-22 bolted to the sidewalk outside, the showroom encouraged visitors to admire the designs being produced during the 1950’s and 1960’s. These include the Olivetti Valentine, which is now in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

It was the 1950s, and business was booming. From 1950-60, exports rose seven times for Olivetti typewriters, and 23 times for their calculating machines. In 1959, Olivetti acquired 34% of the American typewriter company Underwood for 8.7 million dollars, becoming the main shareholder. This acquisition, however, coupled with Adriano’s sudden death in 1960, and the firm’s trouble in their electronics department caused Olivetti to nearly go bankrupt in the mid 1960s. In 1970, the iconic store on 5th avenue closed its doors.

The firm was eventually rescued by a consortium of banks, and today, the Olivetti Company, still headquartered in Ivrea, employs just over 1,000 workers and focuses on the manufacture of electronic office equipment and automation services. Though sales have been steadily declining in recent years, with the company bringing in only 432 million dollars in 2009, the name Olivetti still remains synonymous with efficiency and design. The Olivetti typewriter, though a thing of the past, remains popular and admired among collectors worldwide.

Bibliography and credits
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