Thursday, 23 February 2017


In the 1950s and 1960s Olivetti promoted itself in Italy and beyond with a dazzling range of publicity. Lead by Giovanni Pintori and Marcello Nizzoli, the company created a unique reputation for excellence in graphic and product design and a powerful brand identity. Half a century later the advertising and poster designs look as fresh as when they were new. It remains astonishing to observe the ingenuity with which the intractable form of the typewriter was so fluently transmuted into a vast portfolio of modernist graphics. Every visual element that could be derived from the paraphernalia of typing, including numerals and letterforms, was put to work in an impressive sequence of designs that placed Olivetti products at the forefront of contemporary design around the world.

The manufacturing base was at Ivrea, a small town in Piedmont 35 miles north of Turin. Founded in 1908, the company quickly expanded to the point that Ivrea became a company town of 14,000 employees at its peak, complete with modernist styled worker housing and factory buildings. It survives to the present as a product badge in the ownership of Telecom Italia, a business that mopped up the last of Olivetti in 2003. In 2014 there were 580 staff employed in Ivrea – the current product offer comprises colour copiers, cash registers and a 3D printer. Olivetti’s demise was gradual but irrevocable. A range of electronic typewriters, desk-top calculators and basic word-processors was overwhelmed by the competition from a new wave of IT suppliers in the 80s and 90s and a transition to digital competence proved impossible. But with its design-lead philosophy, obsessive attention to detail and presentation plus the innovative use of coloured finishes, Olivetti in its prime was a blueprint for the future success of Apple.

In New York the Museum of Modern Art was the first institution to collect Olivetti products as exemplars of the modern movement in 1952. This modest selection of Olivetti graphics is supported by a feature from Graphis magazine 59 (1955) and some pages from a book published in 1996 by Somogy in France (“Et aussi des crayons”).

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Italia Grafica 2

Continuing this month’s Italian theme with a selection of Italian graphics from the 1920s and 1930s. There are other national graphic traditions where a higher value is placed upon simplicity, elegance and refinement but Italian graphics have a flavour of their own with a preference for robust and bizarre humour. The influence of international Art Deco is also much to the fore. An Italian taste for broad humour is very much present in the Aspirin ad where the sickly occupant has evaporated leaving a pile of clothing behind while the reinvigorated former patient makes a hasty exit. An earlier selection can be seen by following this link.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Torre Velasca, Milan

There are few modern buildings in the centre of Milan and Torre Velasca is a rare example. Built in 1957-58 to a design by BBPR Partners (R standing for Ernesto Rogers, cousin to Richard Rogers), it has 26 floors of which the upper 8 floors occupy a larger floor area giving the complete building a highly distinctive mushroom-like appearance. The architects claimed that its form echoed the shape of traditional Lombard defensive structures. Be that as it may, the principle advantage was the provision of additional floor space to maximise the rental potential.

The upper 8 floors of Torre Velasca are occupied by apartments; the lower floors are used for office accommodation. The architects took care to avoid excessive repetition by distributing the fenestration on a semi-random basis. The overall impact of the tower on its surrounding streets is less than might be expected given its stark unembellished presence. The austere concrete façade and the looming upper floors supported by muscular concrete brackets suggest a proto-Brutalism. YouTube has a short film, dialogue heavy (in Italian), for those who want to see more.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Funiculì Funiculà

Italian topography with extensive ranges of hills and mountains favoured the development of funicular railways of which some 14 still survive. A selection can be seen on these vintage postcards. The Neapolitan song Funiculì Funiculà was composed in 1880 to commemorate the opening of the Mount Vesuvius cable car service. The refrain travelled at speed around the world convincing many listeners that it was a traditional song in the public domain. It was borrowed on the basis of this misapprehension by Richard Strauss and Rimsky-Korsakov. Strauss was sued by the composer, Luigi Denza and compelled to pay for the privilege. Strangest of all is the arrangement for chamber orchestra written by Arnold Schoenberg in 1921.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Italian Line

When it comes to advertising passenger shipping there are a number of clearly defined conventions – the bow first plunge through the ocean waves, dressing for dinner on-board, champagne and cocktails in the lounge, sun-bathing on the deck etc. The first example here conforms to none of these. A contre-jour child is guided toward the light by a uniformed medic or stewardess while the looming super-natural presence of the rock suggests an object of worship or a place of sacrifice. This illustration is the first of a three page ad from Fortune magazine – flip the page and a more familiar approach is revealed.

The Italian Line was a Genoa-based passenger shipping line that offered transatlantic travel to North and South America. As that market declined they shifted to operating cruises and finally mutated into a cargo shipper with a fleet of container vessels. All except the last of these ads are aimed at the American traveller. The Italian market is tempted with more sophisticated imagery and the bare minimum of text.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Ironopolis – Bridging the River Tees

The Victorians gave the name Ironopolis to Middlesbrough at a time when it was the fastest growing town in Britain. A rapidly expanding steel industry attracted migrants from all over England, Scotland and Ireland to feed a massive demand for labour. Locals were justly proud of the industrial traditions that included the manufacture of the components for the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. After almost five decades of industrial decline, Middlesbrough today is an exemplar of Left Behind Britain. In 2015 the town was awarded the accolade of most deprived local council area in England. No surprise that Middlesbrough voted 65% in favour of leaving the EU.

The Transporter Bridge, opened in 1911, has been maintained in continuous working order although on the day of our visit it was out of action due to an electrical fault. The local authority has developed the bridge as a visitor attraction with an interpretation centre and a lift that takes the public to the overhead walkway. The lift was still in operation giving the opportunity to take photographs from the top. My father, in an unusually anecdotal mood, once told me how as a young man in the 1930s he made use of the bridge on his daily commute to central Middlesbrough. To avoid the expense of riding in the gondola, he, and many others would shoulder their bicycles and climb the metal staircase, cross over the top and descend on the other side. Given the height and constrained dimensions of the steps this was a prodigious feat of strength and co-ordination. With a north-easterly wind driving North Sea winter rain and sleet it must have been a major challenge. 

Our visit took place on a day of brilliant April sunshine, illuminating panoramic views of Teesside and the surviving blast furnaces, steel mills and chemical processing facilities. Ships still pass under the bridge with cargos of petro-chemicals and pipeline equipment for the North Sea oil industry is still produced in the shadow of the bridge. A melancholy sight visible from the bridge is the abandoned carcass of former British Rail vehicle ferry and party boat, the Tuxedo Royale that has been decaying here for more than 5 years. There is no registered owner and nobody to take responsibility for its fate. It’s too tempting to see it as a metaphor for the fate of British industry.