The Design Radical Who Brought Style & Portability to Midcentury Office Machines
Back before digital nomad was a thing, and apple was just a fruit, an Italian designer disrupted the office machine market with a device that offered a sleek design, vibrant colors and new mobility.
While we like to think that we are the first truly remote workers, I was reminded that mobile working was possible before the laptop when I visited an exhibition of the vast body of work by Ettore Sottsass at The Met Breuer last weekend.
One of the cofounders of The Memphis Movement of the 1980s, the prolific and versatile Sottsass worked in wide range of media – architectural drawings, interiors, furniture, ceramics, glass, jewelry, textiles and pattern, painting and photography over a 60 year career. Born in Innsbruck, he grew up in Turin with his architect father (also named Ettore Sottsass) and is considered one of Italy’s design legends.
But it wasn’t until I reached the gallery with his corporate work that I realized the extent of his influence. Amidst a display of work he did for Olivetti, including early mainframe computers, was the iconic red Valentine typewriter, introduced in 1969.
Lightweight, vibrant, and whimsical, with a matching carrying case that was equally sleek, the lipstick-red Valentine brought typewriters from bulky and drab to new levels of design and portability.
By approaching design as a cultural as well as a technical issue, Sottsass showed he understood that emotions as well as ergonomics come into play in the way that we use our possessions in daily life, wrote Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum and author of Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things, in the Guardian.
In sharp contrast to the typically uninspired typewriters of the day, Valentine’s vibrant and distinctive color was deliberately planned to bring fun into the 1960s office. marking the first time an office equipment company delivered a product that signaled work into something that looked playful, Sudjic wrote in the Financial Times.
Valentine was clearly intended for working outside the office, as evidenced by the slideshow of ads and posters featuring the lightweight machine in a range of outdoor settings -- and even on the arm of actress Brigitte Bardot --that emphasize its portability and Pop era design.
Describing it as a “brio among typewriters,” and an “anti-machine machine," Sottsass claimed 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 quietly Sundays in the Country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment.”
If this is starting to sound a bit familiar, that's not a surprise.
Many design experts consider the Valentine to be a foreunner of the candy-colored, playful iMac.
With its minimalist styling and ease of portability, Sudjic and others consider Valentine to be a forerunner to the iMac, Apple’s transformative product that revolutionized desktop computing in a similar way.
Well before iMac’s mix of transparent plastic and acid-sharp citrus colors that signaled that it was playful, knowing and sensuous, rather than technocratic and businesslike, Sottsass’s Valentine showed that information technology could be bright, sexy, youthful and aspirational, Sudjic wrote in How Ettore Sottsass made the Typewriter Sexy.
Disegno Design Journal agreed, stating that 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.
Valentine might also be considered a forerunner for some of the today’s office accessories that bring bold color to the desk. Poppin (company motto “work happy”), with its smartly designed products in a rainbow of inspiring colors, does this in a big way, but other manufacturers are increasingly bringing color to desktops as I wrote about earlier this year.
By injecting a dose of personality into a standard office machine, Sottsass also exhibited the ideas that would later emerge in the Memphis movement, of which he was a founder. (Many Memphis pieces are also on display. Scroll through the photos below to see examples of his brightly colored and heavily patterned postmodern designs).
So while the Valentine may not pack the same computing power and mobility punch of today’s smartphone, it’s not a stretch to think that our office technology of today owes something to Ettore Sottsass and his Valentine, now in the permanent collections of the MoMA, London’s Design Museum, and displayed at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2012.
Sottsass grew frustrated being identified with a singular product,. despite a rich career across many media.
Curated by Christian Larsen, Associate Curator of Modern Design and Decorative Arts in The Met’s Department of Modern and Contemporary Art, the exhibit also includes examples of other artists’ works that influenced Sottsass, including Frank Stella, Piet Mondrian, Jean Michel Frank, Gio Ponti, Shiro Kuramata as well as pieces from artists who drew from Sottsass’ influences.
And while the Valentine is no longer on the market, visitors can take home a Sottsass original or work by contemporary designers he inspired which are sold in the museum’s gift shop.
Ettore Sottsass, Design Radical is on view at the Met Breuer from July 21 through October 8, 2017.
To learn more about Ettore Sottsass, his work and exhibition listings, visit Artsy.
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Valentine was clearly marketed as a remote work option.
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