Before Apple commodified our desires, Olivetti pioneered emotive technology advertising in the 1960s and ‘70s, using visual arts and music to transform the Valentine typewriter from office equipment into a cult object that reflected our adventurous, melancholy, and creative aspirations. With its impractical yet seductive colours and styling, the Valentine became an anthropomorphic companion that embodied dreams and personalities.
Technological product designs seem generically similar regardless of their manufacturers, as in the case of mobile phones, yet highly specific when it comes to performance specifications. This specificity extends to how these objects are moulded to our needs and personalities, from the applications we install to the accessories we purchase to express who we are. But these devices can also elicit a wide range of emotions from us before we even buy them, thanks to the ways advertisements amplify aspects of the designs to ignite particular feelings and associations.
For Olivetti’s Valentine typewriter, designed by Italian architect Ettore Sottsass and British visual artist Perry A. King, the seductive lipstick-red of the machine—and, to an extent, its green and orange versions—brought a certain cool to everyday office work. The typewriter’s slick, glossy surface recalled the sensuality of an Italian sports car, while its advertisements employed a red-and-white colour scheme that brought to mind a certain cigarette brand, and by association, the romantic notion of a writer living on cigarettes and endless coffee. We may not know exactly how the product functions, but we know how we will feel when we use it. Such is the power of design and advertising.
But of course, different countries cherish different characteristics and values, so how was the Valentine portrayed in advertising campaigns across the globe? In the advertising campaign illustrated by artist Adrianus Van Der Elst, a glamorous woman carries the typewriter casually over her shoulder like a handbag, suggesting a spirit of adventure and that we might bring the 4.5 kg Valentine with us on long-haul flights like we would a handheld camera. The Valentine is your best friend and your stylish new lover, always foot-loose and fancy-free.
Across these visuals, the typewriter becomes someone rather than something you experience life with. Even in Milton Glaser’s posters, in which more introspective, serious versions of the machine emerge, the typewriter takes on the guise of a long-lost companion. One poster design from 1970 shows the typewriter nestled in a flush of grass that rolls down to the edge of a lake. A dog sits next to the machine, gazing at the feet of its owner, who is lying just out of frame. Invoking the pensive chic of solitude and being misunderstood, the Valentine is ‘man’s best friend’, something that gives us pleasure while we work on our novels or pour our hearts out in a love letter.
Glaser’s poster is actually an excerpt from the Italian renaissance painter Piero di Cosimo’s solemn painting The Death of Procris (c.1495), which depicts a satyr mourning a nymph. In this wonderful early example of the juxtaposition of styles and references typically found in later postmodernist design practice, Glaser not only signalled high emotional stakes but also the production’s Italian connection.
The Olivetti Corporation of Japan also featured mourning in its advertising as a way to make its technology appeal. Tadaaki Kanasashi’s and Tesro Itoh’s Study and Love poster (1977), with a woman laying her head next to the typewriter as a forlorn figure sits behind her, seems to evoke both a sense of emotional connection and heartbreak. The harmonious quality of the design is augmented by Kanasashi’s knowledge of colour theory. Note the excellent complementary colour choices of the red typewriter sitting on a green cloth, and the purple mountains and sky cut through by a mysterious yellow arc in the distance.
Of course, Olivetti was no stranger to exquisitely designed typewriters. Lettera 22 was designed by Italian designer Marco Nizzoli and Lettera 35 by none other than architect and designer Mario Bellini. So why are we talking about the Valentine, a purely mechanical typewriter, and how can we relate the above discussion to today's digital culture? Many years before the marketing campaign for the Sony Walkman, with its depiction of happy, self-consciously ‘on trend’ roller skaters who could listen to the music of their choice on the go, the advertisements for the Valentine also portrayed a desire to be creative and take risks—a culture that would arise again in the shift from analogue to digital electronic products. Take, for example, the revival of Apple’s fortunes, which primarily rode on the success of the iMac G3 computer, launched in 1998 just after Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997 as interim chief executive.
With its distinctive pebble-like shape and original translucent ‘Bondi Blue’ colouring (followed by thirteen other hues), the iMac G3 felt like an updated Olivetti Valentine, with both devices sharing a common design language that rests on the clean, elegant lines of Jonny Ive, Apple’s then chief design officer, and Sottsass. What the devices also share is an impractical idea, or more precisely, the illusion of practicality. The iMac G3 was marketed as an all-in-one portable computer that you can take anywhere thanks to a plastic handle on the back, never mind its 17.25 kg weight without the keyboard and other accessories. But while the iMac G3 was hardly a breeze to carry, its iconic TV advertisements highlighted its sleek sensuous lines and vibrant colours, and used jaunty pop songs to fashion a sense of lightness. In addition to visual messaging, Apple also used trendy music in a distinctly refreshing way to emphasise the chic desirability of its products to affluent, style-conscious customers.
Now, when we think of technological hardware, Apple’s ubiquitous commercials emphasising the sleekness of their designs now dominate the marketing landscape. But Olivetti, with its territorially tailored campaigns and range of evocative advertisements for which we may hear dramatic, forlorn strings as much as bouncy beats, was arguably the Apple of its time. Happiness is not the only emotion in our lexicon, after all. There is room for sadness and longing, too.