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Olivetti Hit Keys for Success: Good Design

On view through Oct. 28, 2012, at the Denver Art Museum, “Olivetti: Innovation & Identity,” a small exhibit tied to a larger show about modern design, examines how an Italian company making typewriters and calculators forged its reputation on the idea that the customer’s aesthetic experience matters. A mid-century explosion of sexy, modern design in Italy set Olivetti’s products and advertising apart.

Art Beat talked to Darrin Alfred, curator of both the Olivetti show as well as “What Is Modern?” about Olivetti’s lasting influence:

What inspired this exhibit?

I wanted to organize a small exhibition in conjunction with another larger exhibition currently on view at the Museum titled, ‘What Is Modern?’ I was interested in utilizing both graphics and objects from our permanent collection. I had considered incorporating a typewriter manufactured by Olivetti in What Is Modern? and learned that we had more than enough to pull together this small presentation. While some of the typewriters had been on view many years ago, none of the posters in our collection had been shown before. I felt we could tell a more holistic story to the public by combing both Olivetti products and advertising.

This show explores the way design can define identity, specifically for a branded product. What set Olivetti apart from other companies making the same products in that era?

The Olivetti tradition of excellence in design stems from the corporate style and business management principles introduced chiefly by Adriano Olivetti, the son of the company’s founder. Prior to the Second World War there had been few attempts to impose an integrated design scheme on all aspects of any company. Adriano’s preoccupation with design developed into a comprehensive corporate philosophy, which embraced everything from the shape of a space bar to the color scheme for an advertising poster, thus distinguishing Olivetti’s products from those of other companies during the post-war era. Adriano flanked the company’s manufacturing division with graphics artists, painters, architects, writers and advertising experts who were called in to take an active part in product design, graphics and advertising.

However, Olivetti was not alone. After the war, corporations such as Braun in Germany, Bang & Olufsen in Denmark and IBM in the United States also adapted the policy of “good design is good business” and hired influential designers to create an inventive image for their companies, from their products and showrooms to everyday graphics. Design was seen as a major way to shape a reputation for quality and reliability. This approach ensured their commercial and critical success as well as a place in design history.

What do you, personally, find most appealing or compelling about Olivetti’s artwork and products?

In 1936, Adriano Olivetti hired 24-year-old Pintori to join the publicity department. For a 31-year period, Pintori put his personal stamp on Olivetti’s graphic images. Pintori’s innovative approach to marketing was very compelling. For example, in 1949, Pintori created a poster filled from edge to edge with a chaotic mass of numerals. The company’s logotype sits dead center. Instead of advertising a specific product, Pintori conveyed a broader message about the company. The image promotes Olivetti’s technological achievements in the field of calculating, which it had recently entered with a line of adding machines. The advertisement conveys the ease with which Olivetti’s new products brought order to the world of numbers.

Is it more fun to type on a technicolor typewriter?

Unfortunately, I never owned a technicolor typewriter, however I imagine that Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine portable typewriter for Olivetti in 1969, a bright red model which heralded the arrival of color and informality in the office, would have kept the thought of monotonous working hours at bay and would have looked wonderful as a highly colored object on a desk.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post gave an incorrect date for the closing of the exhibit. “Olivetti: Innovation & Identity” is on view through Oct. 28, 2012.

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