My design classic: The Olivetti Valentine

Before Apple was ever thought of, Olivetti was the Italian company that knew how to make mundane bits of office equipment into desirable objects. In the case of the Valentine – a portable typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass and his British assistant Perry King in 1969 – it was not so much a typewriter. Rather, it was “something designed to keep poets company on lonely Sundays in the countryside”, as Sottsass put it himself, neatly demonstrating that designers need to be storytellers as much as anything else.

He was a remarkable designer and was hired by Olivetti to give a shape and form to its first mainframe computer, the Elea 9003. That was in the days when mainframes were the size of a whole room and had the capacity of today’s digital calculators.

The Valentine was designed to be revolutionary. There was the red body, for example, at a time when typewriters only came in black and grey, along with vivid orange for the ribbon spools. The carry case wasn’t just an afterthought either – also a bold red, it looked like a rectangular bucket, so that you could turn it upside down and use it as a makeshift seat if you so desired.

Sottsass wanted to go even further and simplify the mechanical parts by only having upper case letters, but that was a step too far for the marketing department. The Valentine was launched with a massive publicity campaign, with lots of photography showing groovy young things using it. It was doing the same job for Olivetti that the iMac did for Apple – except that it didn’t sell nearly as many. It’s dead technology now, but a powerful reminder of what we’ve lost with the death of the analogue age. I still have one, on the shelf next to my citrus-coloured, see-through iMac.

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