Jun 20, 2018

Ettore Sottsass

Ettore Sottsass came from a well-known family. Born in Innsbruck in 1917, his father was Ettore Sottsass senior, a very active architect in Trentino and lover of the Bauhaus style. It was all on him though, the merit of making the last name Sottsass famous all over the world, making the history of design and linking his identity to a company that in a few years would make history as well: Olivetti.

It was eleven years after the opening of his own design studio in Milan, that Sottsass got a call from the historic factory in Ivrea. It was 1958 and that only the beginning of a thriving partnership that lasted twenty years. Twenty years of experiments, bold choices, and won bets. It was Adriano Olivetti to call him: he wanted him as chief of the new electronic department, he wanted his genius to be at service of the Elea 9000, the first electronic calculator designed and manufactured in Italy. But at the beginning it wasn’t simple for Sottsass. He didn’t want to give emphasis to the technology: he wanted to build a machine that could be easily put in a workspace and that was in tune with people. After months of studying, he created the small cabinets – that didn’t overpower the workers – as containers for the Elea 9000, and put its cable connections on top: that way maintenance would have been easier. To Sottsass, in fact, a good design piece had to take into consideration also the people’s psyche and mind. It had to be ethic, social.

To the Elea 9000 followed quite a lot of other projects. He signed them all, the designer, but he always declined the offers to be hired. Actually, he created a design group inside the Olivetti – alongside some of his partners – and created another group in his Milan studio, which had some of the company’s technician as its members. From their collaboration, in twenty years fifty products were designed: computers, systems, typewriters, calculators, teletypewriters, and furniture for the office.

And it is exactly a typewriter the most famous piece by Ettore Sottsass (along with the Elea 900), that portable Valentine that, in his mind, had to be “essential as a pen”, with few keys, a plastic structure, and no capital letters. But the Olivetti marketed a more pretentious version of it, going against his idea. The idea of a type of design that meets the people and their need. A no-design, or radical design, as we call it today.

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