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Red. The color of lust, passion, and innovation. It’s also the color of one designer’s 1969 “mistake.”
20th century (Austrian-born) Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass is primarily remembered for his work with the international artist collective Memphis Group and his 1969 red Valentine typewriter. The latter embodied the zeitgeist of post-’68 counterculture in the age of mass production: It was a fashion statement, a pop object, the ultimate ‘work from home’ tool. It was radical, colorful, rebellious.
But it was also considered a failure by its creator.
Ettore Sottsass’s designs exist in the realm of playful, colorful rebellion against the modernist axiom form follows function. “Modernism was cold and cerebral. It was this mass produced, homogeneous thing,” says Christian Larsen, curator of The Met Breuer’s latest exhibition, Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, in an exclusive interview. “Sottsass gave it a heart and soul.”
Recruited as a design consultant in 1957 by the industrial office manufacturer Adriano Olivetti, Sottsass’s initial landmark project was the first all-transistor mainframe computer, the Elea 9003. From there, he went on to design the Valentine (with Perry King), which he intended to be a super inexpensive, egalitarian machine, meant for work outside the office. It appealed to youth culture—in the same way Apple products appeal to millennials today—and transformed a bulky stationary machine into a pop artifact.
Unveiled on Valentine’s Day in 1969, the Valentine typewriter could easily be written off as a marketing ploy—with its bright, cheeky design and provocative advertising campaign. But its influence, now long embedded and subsumed in the cultural and corporate landscape, runs deeper than aesthetics.
A playful anthropomorphization permeated Sottsass’s work; he loved to imbue his creations with quirky, human characteristics. He chose bright red so as to “not remind anyone of the monotonous working hours,” and orange scroll caps that resemble nipples and eyes.
He called his red creation an “unpretentious toy…to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country or to provide a highly colored object on a table in a studio apartment.” Sottsass “transcended the sameness of typewriter design,” says Christian Larsen, by giving the Valentine an endearing personality.
The intention was to create an inexpensive, non-precious, portable object, almost like a Bic pen. Sottsass’s initial design eliminated all lowercase letters and even the bell, and used a cheaper grade of plastic to lower production and engineering costs. It was a utilitarian machine made for anywhere—except the office.
Even the plastic carrying case was revolutionary, with its matte finish and durability, making it almost as important as the machine itself. “The fact that so much attention went into the case as the typewriter [was radical],” remarks art historian Deborah Goldberg in an interview. “The case…looks like leather but it’s actually plastic. The handle of the typewriter actually went through the case, so it was really intermixed in the design.”
Still, Sottsass called the final product “a mistake.” Why would such an iconic typewriter, one whose designed influence the creation the Apple’s candy-colored iMacs, ever be considered a failure by the designer himself?
“I worked sixty years of my life, and it seems the only thing I did is this fucking red machine. And it came out a mistake. It was supposed to be a very inexpensive portable, to sell in the market, like pens…Then the people at Olivetti said you cannot sell this.” —Ettore Sottsass, 1993
If such a thing as a truly egalitarian machine exists, Sottsass’s design came pretty close to the ideal. Using only capital letters and eliminating the bell was a strange, radical idea, but it would also lower production and engineering costs enough to make the Valentine affordable.
Comparing the Valentine as a precursor to candy-colored iMac is easy. But Christian Larsen likens the machine to the “One Laptop Per Child” initiative founded in 2005 because it reinforces Sottsass’s vision of driving the cost of the typewriter/laptop low enough for everyone to afford. Everyone, including underprivileged children in underdeveloped countries. The Valentine was supposed to be a mass produced object, a design for the everyman.
But his boss, Olivetti, wouldn’t allow it.
Olivetti reportedly told Sottsass that he didn’t want a “cheap Chinese thing” manufactured by his Italian company. (This comment was actually omitted from The Met Breuer’s exhibition after Larsen’s editors deemed it politically incorrect.) “We struck [the last line of the quote. But] I actually think it’s a very interesting statement to have been made in 1969, that those perceptions of mass produced Chinese products were considered cheap, in terms of quality and price,” says Larsen.
Sottsass’s disappointment in the final product was not well known, and it took Larsen months of digging to unearth this fact as he put the show together.
Despite this tension and creative disappointment, the Valentine typewriter still rose to become a multi-faceted object—a tool for remote work, a fashion object, an accessory. Brigitte Bardot, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor were all photographed carrying the little red typewriter as a carry-on bag during their travels, making it an iconic statement, a coveted good. “There was a perception [around it],” says Larsen. “The chic, the elite, and cool would be into this machine because it was very much with its time.” Even Audrey Hepburn swapped the little black dress for a red Valentine.
The massive advertising campaign featured the Valentine in unusual settings, including the Acropolis, an airplane cockpit, and a beach, further solidifying its status as the ultimate portable “work from home” machine. But the typewriter also subliminally fetishized the idea of office equipment.
One ad featured a woman seductively squatting before the Valentine in a chic ’60s dress, while her male boss or co-worker peers over her shoulder. Another ad features a girl in a bikini typing away on the beach, or what could be the surface of the moon. Sottsass’s anthropomorphization was taken to the next level by subverting the boring old typewriter as a sexualized object.
But it wasn’t necessarily intended to become a statement of luxury or sex, by any means—at least not for Sottsass.
If the typewriter was intended to be this egalitarian machine, what about Sottsass’s ambivalence towards the idea of mass production? “Mass production has that democratic impact. It can improve the lives of a great many number of people sheerly through technological advance and making something at a cheap price point,” says Larsen. “The problem with mass production is that you get sameness.”
“The same thing is being produced a hundred thousands times over, so everyone is getting the same good. Sottsass felt that sameness was alienating and that led to a culture of homogenization. It also was sort of soulless,” says Larsen. “When you mass produce, you edit out the individuality of the design.”
The Valentine was the first of its kind to allow users the freedom to work remotely, a notion that went against the grain of the existing corporate fabric, and despite the ubiquity of the modern laptop, is still not a common U.S. practice.
Sottsass’s own work choices mirrored this creative rebellion: Once his work caught Olivetti’s eye in 1957, he was brought on as a design consultant, not a full-time employee. This allowed Sottsass a kind of autonomy and creative freedom, a separation from the corporate structure that perhaps allowed him to revolutionize the tools, or the mechanisms of power.
Sottsass’s influence on corporate design partially stemmed from his reaction to the post-war mass production industry boom he witnessed in the United States. “Sottsass was really rebelling against the industry as a whole,” says Larsen. “The other major company that was producing typewriters was IBM, and of course, IBM didn’t come in any color besides black. So they really didn’t experiment much with the object.”
“He wanted autonomy,” continues Larsen. “He didn’t want to be tied to one company. He was way too interested in various other pursuits. He still thought of himself as a painter at this time. He couldn’t decide whether he was an architect, a designer—all of these things interested him and so he wanted a studio where he could be free to pursue all of these interests. He didn’t want to be tied to one particular company. And that’s rebellious. That is resisting.”
The red Valentine typewriter is currently on display at The Met Breuer’s Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical, curated by Christian Larsen, until October 8, 2017 in New York City.