Thursday 14 November 2013

The Italian Design

A couple of weeks back I decided to write a post on the influences impacting typewriter design. This post has been finished for a while, just unpublished. It was inspired in part by a conversation I had with Scott K on the way back from a visit to John’s place in September. We were discussing the depth of knowledge that the typosphere (with a notable mention of Robert Messenger) delivers in relation to the corporations, patents and people behind different typewriter designs. Scott pointed out however, that less often discussed in the typosphere is the influence of the social and cultural contexts of the era on a typewriter’s aesthetic design. I thought this was a good point. Because designs are not dreamed up by designers in isolation, but are products of the prevailing social, economic, even political conditions and sentiments of the time. Thus the influences acting upon the designer of a given typewriter make for a very interesting discussion; a discussion that with the help of the typosphere and my university’s library, one that I’ve decided to have a crack at. I share with Ton and many others a great love of Olivetti and I thought what better place to start than the first typewriter I ever owned, the Olivetti Lexikon 80. 

Impatient Snow Collection

Ton S Collection (Ton S. 2012a)

There is already a wealth of information on the enigma that is the Olivetti corporation (Marin 2009, Messenger 2011a, Messenger 2011b, Ton S. 2012b, Ton S. 2013- full references at the end of the post). There is also plenty of information available on the Lexikon 80 and later varients (Ton S 2012a, New York MOMA etc etc) including of course Rob Bowker's info on his own awesome green Graphika. We know already that the Lexikon 80 (released 1948) is an iconic design by an iconic designer, one which has found its way into millions of offices, homes, the New York Gallary of Modern Art, countless blog posts and Industrial Design textbooks. It was designed by Marcello Nizzoli (1887-1969) in collaboration with engineer Guiseppe Beccio. Nizzoli was a painter, designer and graphic designer who began work for Olivetti in 1930, rising through the ranks to become head product design consultant by 1936 (www.marcello– 

However, while Nizzoli was the designer of the Lexikon and this machine is correctly attributed to Nizzoli’s incredible imagination, it should also be seen as very much a product of the time and a precursor for much to come. 

New York Gallery of Modern Art Collection: Source:
Impatient Snow Collection

The year the Lexikon 80 was released (1948) was an important year for Italian Industrial Design. Woodend (1997) quotes Andresa Branzi as saying that Italian design of the 50’s should really be seen to begin in 1948. The general elections in Italy in 1948 installed a centrist government with an eagerness to develop markets and stimulate the economy. This government correctly identified promoting Italian design and production as a means of doing this. The export of fashion, appliances, motor-vehicles and (I assume) typewriters to the rest of the world, played a part in Italy’s exports shooting up by a whopping 259% between 1951 and 1962 (Woodend 1997). For comparison England and France posted increases of 29% and 86% respectively during the same period (Woodend 1997). What this means, I assume, is that the Italian industrial design and manufacturing industries at the time the Lexikon’s and Lettera 22’s were selling, had the confidence of the government; a government who was keen to promote and export designs and to open up new markets. Designs shifted towards elegance and top-notch workmanship, targeting the quickly burgeoning high-end markets. This provided for a “move away from democratic idealism toward a more style-conscious aesthetic geared towards the pockets of the more affluent sectors of society” (Woodend 1997, pp.123).

The products of Industrial Design in post-war Italy were, in my opinion, downright gorgeous. Italy was a distinct trend-setter in design during this time and Italian designs of the late 1940’s played a large part in shaping and determining what we now associate with 50’s fashion. While the Lexikon 80 is original in its own right, close parallels can be drawn between Nizzoli’s 1948 Lexikon 80 with Italian automotive designs of the time, including the curves of the original Vespa motor-scooter of 1946 and the Cisitalia 202 sports car of 1947. Following this style as well is the stunning Gio Ponti designed La Pavoni coffee machine of 1949. 




The aesthetic of this design has been described as an “organic sculptural form”. Now I freely admit I’m not quite arty enough to know what this really means, but whatever it is, it is clearly a form which Nizzoli followed in his other designs for Olivetti in the late 40’s and early 50’s including the Divisumma 14 (1947),  Summa 15 (1949) and of course the beautiful Lettera 22 (1950). 

New York Gallery of Modern Art Collection: Source:

IDE Virtual Design Museum Collection. Source:
Summa 15: Source:

Impatient Snow Collection

Where Italy went, the world followed. One of my favourite car designs, the iconic Australian built FJ Holden, was released five years after the Lexilon 80, in 1953, but it still looks like the automotive equivalent of hopping right inside your own Lexikon 80 and driving off.....



Marin, Fransu (2009) Hispano Olivetti- a brief history. ETCetera #86, June 2009.

Messenger, Robert (2011a)-

Messenger, Robert (2011b)

Ton. S (2012b)-

Ton S (2012a)

Ton S. (2013)-

Woodham, J.M. (1997). Twentieth-Century Design. Oxford University Press, Oxford UK