Nov 16, 2009

Revolution on a Keyboard

IBM’s place in history is secure, as one of the 20th century’s largest drivers of technology and purveyors of the most advanced products in electronics and computing. But their consumer products, even acclaimed seminal ones such as the Selectric typewriter or the IBM PC, never achieved the cult status accorded to the Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, or the Apple iMac G3. How did these objects, from much smaller competitors, create their cults?

There are some outstanding similarities in the rhetoric around the Lettera 22, released in 1949, and the iMac, released in 1998. For one, reporters and analysts invariably find it necessary to write at disproportionate length about the companies behind the product. Jay Doblin, while including the Lettera 22 in his list of One Hundred Great Product Designs in his eponymous book from 1970, spends so much time contemplating the evolution of the ‘distinctive Olivetti style’, that his comments on the Lettera itself must be confined to the concluding paragraph. Time Magazine, reporting on the iMac through 1998 and 1999, never once mentions the design team, always crediting design aspects to Apple and Steve Jobs.

There is considerable mythmaking as well. The bulletin for the 1952 MoMA show titled ‘Olivetti: Design in Industry’, begins, “The Olivetti Company, many critics agree, is the leading corporation in the western world in the field of design”, going on to praise Olivetti’s dedication to design in every aspect of the company. And then there’s that apocryphal story of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive discussing the design of the iMac while pacing a vegetable patch. Little picturesque details like this add to the aura of the product in retrospect.

By 1949, Olivetti was an established brand and Marcello Nizzoli had already designed the hugely successful Lexicon 80. The Lettera 22 was conceived as the compact, portable version of the Lexicon, and these distinguishing qualities ended up making it an icon in its own right. Engineer Guiseppe Beccio worked to cut down the number of components of the typewriter: the standard model had 3000 parts, the Lettera 22 had only 2000. But it was Nizzoli’s design response to this technological change that created what historian Stephen Bayley calls “a visual type which has been continuously imitated since.”

The design has been called “sculptural”, with “sleek fluid lines and a low profile”, with the entire volume contained in one compact form. Even the roller has been almost completely integrated. The fact that the keys float in the air is still a source of delight for contemporary critics who are rediscovering their typewriters.  And nobody fails to be charmed by that one red tabulator key. The Lettera 22 has also been praised for its ergnomics: not only is it light and portable, but the carriage handle and keys are sculpted to receive the action of the hands of the user. The Italian-ness of the Lettera seems a key contributor to all this talk of sculpturalism and quality. Doblin called the design “high puristic Italian style…surrounded by an aura of taste and intellect lacking in many American firms.”

Nearly instant fame followed. In 1954, it won the newly instituted Compasso d’Oro prize in Italy, for “its aesthetics and technical production.” In 1959, the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago ran a survey in which the Lettera 22 emerged on top of a list of the 100 best designed products of modern times. Soon, Bayley reports, it was displayed at Olivetti’s Fifth Avenue store in New York, “on pedestals and supplied with rolls of commercial paper…available to influence a whole generation of young American Designers.” This smacks of déjà vu for anyone who has been to an Apple Retail Store.

We may see the iMac today as a revolutionary idea in the world of personal computers. But the fact is that contemporary commentators recognized it as a revival of the all-in-one models that Apple had been launching since 1984. One writer felt it was a nostalgic moment when Jobs lifted the veil off the iMac; another one called it a ‘refreshing blast from the past.’ These writers felt that it was the design of the exterior shell, with its innovative use of material that made this model stand out. Andrew Gore at Macworld writes about staying up overnight at a computer store on the 5th of May 1998, and he wasn’t disappointed when it arrived. “Technology aside,” he says, “there’s that striking industrial design: translucent plastics; easily accessible ports; and a clever use of curves, angles, and varied textures…So what if it looks like an alien chicken egg?”

The ‘i’ in the iMac was a finishing flourish: instantly projecting this as an object designed for that portal to the future: the Internet. Time magazine’s reviewer Michael Krantz called the iMac a “marvel of simplicity” because of its ease in connecting to the internet, but author Alan Deutschmann wryly differs, “The machine wasn’t an Internet computer any more or less than the Intel-Microsoft PCs (or other Macs for that matter).” Average users actually had no trouble connecting to the Internet on other machines. But the slick positioning, added to the bright colourful industrial design and the media blitzkrieg, had consumers lining up: they put in 150,000 orders even before the computer went on sale.

Critical acclaim, as in the case of the Lettera 22, followed soon. The iMac made it into the ‘Best of the Category’ section of I.D. magazine’s Annual Design Review of 1999. In this issue of the magazine, Jonathan Ive revealed that he was inspired by the Jetsons. And indeed, in the popular imagination of the time, the iMac looked like the future had already happened. I.D. magazine claimed that it had “redefined what a computer can look and act like- as easy to operate as a home appliance, as warm and fuzzy as a giant Tamogotchi.” A Tamogotchi is a key chain toy from the time: a plastic egg with a screen that displayed a ‘virtual pet’. It came in bright pop colours, just like the iMac.

No discussion of the iMac can be complete without reference to colour. The iMac was released in Bondi Blue (there are far too many apocryphal stories about that colour choice), and was soon offered in eleven colours and two patterns. This was considered a revolution, that “smashed the decades-long tyranny of monochromatically sterile PCs brought out by almost every company”. What made it even more alluring was the translucency of the body: showing off the internals of a computer for the very first time.

But this isn’t as new a revolution as it seems. As in so many other things, the Lettera 22 was an early fore-runner. Early typewriters were all black, as Adrian Forty explains in his brief analysis of office equipment from the time. By the 1950’s, the trend had shifted to “light-coloured, all-enveloping steel cases which concealed the mechanism and attempted to give some elegance to the overall proportions.” This trend was seeded by Olivetti. The Lettera 22 was available not just in beige, but in other colours too, including powder blue and pistachio green. While the guts of the machine were covered, there was a signifier of transperancy: the floating keys.

What ultimately unites the Lettera 22 and the iMac is not just the fact that they broke away from the mainstream and set industry trends. This innovation came out of putting the experience of the user - visual, tactile and functional - first. Anybody could use the internet on an iMac, and every secretary on the Lettera could “reveal her talents in a virtuoso performance”. And then they could pick up this hitherto fore exclusive product and carry it around with them: both the iMac and the Lettera22 made portability a key design feature. Even as these products went up on pedestals, the technology they used had transformed into something more human and democratic.
This essay was written as part of Ralph Caplan's class, 'The Critical Imperative'

Do look at the beautiful instruction manual for the Lettera 22.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful machines both I think, although the alien-egg-ness of the iMac always put me off more than the colours turned me on


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