Olivetti poster designed by Giovanni Pintori, 1949. 28 in. x 20 in. Collection SFMOMA.
Olivetti poster designed by Giovanni Pintori, 1949. 28 in. x 20 in. Collection SFMOMA.

Before Steve Jobs was a glint in his father’s eye, Olivetti was elevating the design aesthetics of the business machine world through product design and advertising rooted in the Bauhaus and vetted in Italy.

Olivetti placed great importance on its design.

[A] 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.

—Jonathan Martin, International Directory of Company Histories

Olivetti’s design aesthetic went beyond its products and advertising, as the company also hired notable architects like Le Corbusier to design its offices and factories. Notable artists, designers and architects contributed in-house to Olivetti’s design brain trust, including Giovanni Pintori and Ettore Sottsass. Sottsass oversaw industrial design for Olivetti’s Elea 9003, Italy’s first mainframe computer, which incidentally predated IBM’s first transistorized computer. Sottsass also designed the Olivetti Valentine. The Valentine was a bright red plastic portable typewriter, which became more of a fashion accessory than a business tool, entering Olivetti in the popular culture.

Olivetti Valentine
Olivetti Valentine (1969) designed by Marcello Nizzoli and Ettore Sottsass. Image from Wikipedia.

Olivetti’s cutting edge design remains timeless, while the competition look ridiculously quaint. Good design that navigates around current trends and instead bases itself on solid, aesthetic principles will endure.  A 2008 Italian advertisement for Apple’s iPhone 3G name dropped company founder Camillo Olivetti in the phone’s contact list. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t answer though, since he’s been dead since 1943. His company’s design legacy, however, lives on.

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