Oi Polloi

Italia al Lavoro - Italy at Work

Published: Wed Feb 14 2018

Aircraft Hangers - Pier Luigi Nervi

We’ve been working with Superga on bringing back a long-lost gem from their enviable archives. There’ll be more news on this little canvas beauty fairly soon, but to set the scene a bit, we asked Modernist editor Eddy Rhead to educate us a bit on Italian design. Take it away Eddy… 

It’s easy to slip into national stereotypes when talking about Italian design and simply trot out the clichés about style and panache and romance. Of course, not all Italians have good taste, not all Italians dress well and not all Italian architecture is sublime, but there’s something at the heart of Italian design which carries the weight of thousands of years of history. 

This history (which goes back as far as the Romans, with their cultural dominance and revolutionary technical advances) ensures that values such as simplicity and craft permeate virtually all forms of production, and it’s a culture that values good design and aesthetics, but never at the expense of function. 

Many of the Italian post-war industries that came to define good design and quality products have their roots in the interwar years of the 1920s and 30s. Companies such as Olivetti, Zanussi, Lambretta and Superga started production in the inter-war years and household names like Pirelli and FIAT can be traced to the turn of the century.  

A reoccurring theme in much of Italian manufacturing and production is that many brands and companies tried to appeal to the 'common man', and held a belief that good design was not exclusively for the rich.

"When I think of Italian design, I think of Olivetti typewriters."

Once again, it’s difficult not to slip into cliché when one thinks of what constitutes 'Italian design', and whilst one may immediately think of the fashion houses and luxury car brands that Italy has produced, equally there are countless examples of timeless designs — the FIAT 500, the Vespa scooter, the Superga tennis shoe or the Olivetti Valentine typewriter  that have endured the test of time and were, in their day, aimed squarely at the mass market. 

For some, Italian design means Lamborghini and Armani, but when I think of Italian design, I think of Olivetti typewriters, Colnago bicycles, the architecture and engineering of Pier Luigi Nervi and the graphic design of Massimo Vignelli — if I think of Italian design, I think of the magazine Domus

Domus was founded in 1928 by the architect and designer Gio Ponti. Ponti would go on to become perhaps Italy’s most famous Modernist architects, his most notable building being the Pirelli Tower in Milan, built for the giant tyre company. His role of editor of Domus is no less significant, and with the founding principle of "Architecture and decor of the modern home in the city and in the country," its pages introduced the world to the best of Italian design whilst also showcasing the best of Modernist architecture from around the world. 

The Pirelli Tower in Milan

Ponti often worked with the concrete engineer Pier Luigi Nervi. Nervi is one of my all-time architectural heroes and is perhaps overlooked somewhat, possibly because he rarely worked outside Italy but also perhaps because much of his work was infrastructure such as factories, bridges, warehouses, and aircraft hangars — ‘engineering' and not architecture. 

He was a pioneer and master in the use of concrete and elevated it from a mundane material into an art form. He would sculpt it into organic shapes, often for legitimate engineering reasons, and the results were both beautiful and awe-inspiring. 

This deleted scene from The Italian Job was filmed in Turin's Exhibition Hall which was designed by Nervi and it showcases beautifully the genius of his concrete work.  

The northern city of Turin is central to the plot and production of The Italian Job, as is the automobile company FIAT. There’s a famous scene in the film on the roof of the Lingotto, which at the time was the main FIAT factory. At Lingotto raw materials would arrive at ground level and production would continue in spiral up the five storeys of the building until the finished cars would emerge on the top level where there was test track running the length of the building. 

The building was a lesson in engineering, planning and the rationalism that Italy was becoming famous for, and it’s no wonder that it was hugely influential for Modernist architects and a favourite of Le Corbusier, who called it “one of the most impressive sights in industry.” 

The Lingotto building in Turin

FIAT is perhaps not a brand one thinks of when it comes to good design, and whilst their cars never really ignited much passion with the British, it must be remembered that from the 1950s until the 1980s FIAT were the third largest automobile manufacturer in the world. They were also a very progressive company when it came to design and in the late 1960s they turned to the Swiss agency of Jean Reinwald to rationalise and streamline the entire FIAT look. 

The FIAT account was given to a young designer called Armin Vogt and what he was to come up with was as radical as it was beautiful. Vogt ditched the traditional crest logo and reduced the four letters in the FIAT name into four individual rhombuses, at a slight angle, with a clear Univers type.

Fiat branding in action

The shape and simplicity of the logo meant its form could be extended and manipulated so the FIAT brand was still obvious even if there was a variety of colours used or the word FIAT wasn’t even used. The logo came to represent the complex and modular nature of a cars production and also provided a platform for immense creativity in advertising and marketing. 

The Italians once again had proved simplicity and good styling can make for enduring products and as it was FIAT were responsible for one perhaps the most enduring car models of all – the FIAT 500. Designed to be cheap and practical in the austere post war years, the little two door car was meant to deal with Italy's tight, crowded city centre streets. It was produced from 1957 until 1975 and nearly four million were sold.

An old Fiat 500 advert

The Superga 2750 is the FIAT 500 of the shoe world and is another enduring classic with a design that has hardly changed for nearly 100 years. Introduced in 1925, its simple canvas upper and vulcanised rubber sole was an instant hit both off and on the tennis court. 

Superga built on the success of the 2750, once again using that almost unique Italian cocktail of craft, engineering and style, and throughout the 30s the company grew. Production shut down during the war and the company struggled in the immediate post-war years, but thanks to a merger of our old friends at Pirelli, the company was once again able to prosper. 

An old design from the Superga archives

Strong personal vision of company heads seem to be another enduring part of Italian manufacturing. Large Italian corporations like to keep it in the family and many of Italy’s biggest corporations, even to this day, have an original family member on the board or as CEO. One such Italian company was Olivetti and perhaps no single company, not only in Italy but in the world, has showed more commitment to good design than Olivetti. 

The company was started by Camilo Olivetti in 1908, but it was his son Adriano that made the company’s name and it was Adriano who became a patron of exemplary design, not just in the products they made but right across the whole business, from the beautiful advertising to the cutting edge Modernist architecture of its factories, offices and shops. 

The Olivetti showroom in Turin

Olivetti was founded in the north western town of Ivrea and over the course of 50 years the company dominated the town and at its height 90,000 of its inhabitants worked there. Olivetti used the best Italian and international architects for its buildings and had an extensive welfare programme so as well as factories and offices it built housing for its workers and entertainment and leisure buildings in and around the town. 

Olivetti's initial prime product was the typewriter, a seemingly humble device but a complex and intricate engineering triumph of miniaturisation. In a time before personal computers every office in the world would need a typewriter and Olivetti typewriters became the most popular typewriters in the world, not only for their efficiency but because of their stylish design. 

Without labouring a point, it was perhaps only an Italian company that could take a precision engineered machine and apply panache and simplicity to create enduring and classic design pieces. Perhaps the pinnacle of this was the Valentine designed by long time Olivetti collaborator Ettore Sottass. Sottass stripped the design down to its barest essentials, built the body and clever integrated carry case in hard plastic and offered them in a variety of vivid colours such as egg yellow, pea and, perhaps most famously, bright red. 

An old advert for the Olivetti Valentine typewriter

As well as great products and great architecture Olivetti's advertising was bold, exciting and always of the moment. Exciting use of type and colour combined with oblique photo montages meant Olivetti adverts were as keenly anticipated as the products and many of the press ads and posters have become classics of graphic design. 

I personally think Italian design works best when it's aimed at the masses.

Olivetti perfectly encapsulates everything that is great about Italian design — a craft and engineering pedigree, a desire to produce well-designed mass-market items, attention to detail and, perhaps most importantly… they are just so damn cool. 

I personally think Italian design works best when it's aimed at the masses. You can keep your ostentatious Ferraris and your unaffordable Dolce and Gabbana, I’d much rather drive around in an old Fiat 500 with a fresh pair of white Superga on my feet — maybe stop off at a bar for a cheeky Cinzano, read a copy of DOMUS, then tap out a couple of chapters of a novel on my portable Olivetti Valentine. Bella!