Immediately after creating the Valentine, famed Italian designer/architect Ettore Sottsass worked on the Lettera 36, Olivetti's first portable electric typewriter. Being an electric, it is much heavier than the manual Valentine (some 7kg/15lbs). It's also made mostly out of metal except for the black plastic cover, while the Valentine is largely plastic. But the 36 is quite compact and has roughly the same footprint as the Valentine.

When I first saw the Lettera 36, I actually thought it was designed by Sottsass' fellow countryman Mario Bellini, as it has some of the same visual cues, particularly the extruded rounded rectangle form that can also be seen in his Divisumma 18 calculator. Nonetheless, this is a Sottsass creation -- however Bellini did do an update to it in 1976, the Lexicon 83 that is considerably more serious looking.

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In fact, the Lettera 36 has strong visual similarities to another Sottsass design in the same year, the Summa 19 desktop calculator. They share the large radii running along the top edges, and the contrasting colored shroud bisecting the body. You can see Sottsass establishing the house style for Olivetti in this period with these products.

Lettera 36 with cylindrical keys. Image courtesy of  Mark martin

Lettera 36 with cylindrical keys. Image courtesy of Mark martin

The original version of the 36 had cylindrical keys, a precursor to the "island" style keyboards common on laptops today, as each round key sat in individual holes in the top surface. These were found to be impractical for rapid typing, however, and a revised version with more conventional rectangular keys was launched. That's the version shown here. So far as I can tell, all other details are the same. But as I'll discuss below, the change in the button design has a crucial effect on the overall personality of the machine.

The Sottsass Touches

The Lettera 36 is a much more tidy design than many of Olivetti's earlier products. It feels very self contained. The heavy metal body is dense, which makes it feel powerful for its size. (The substantial feel is done a large disservice by the black plastic cover, however.)

Nonetheless, it includes a couple of touches that are Sottsass signatures: striking color accents, and a floating keyboard. These can also be seen in the earlier Praxis 48, a larger office electric machine, which featured green accents instead of bright blue on the Lettera 36.

While the Praxis 48 has a keyboard that is fully cantilevered out from the main body, the smaller Lettera 36 has a less dramatic angled bottom to its keyboard. This gives it a rather boat-like appearance, but it lends a a feeling of lightness that is fully appropriate for a portable machine. On the bottom edge of the front lip are three substantial dials: the on/off switch at the left, and controls for type spacing.

As with the Valentine and Praxis, Sottsass does a beautiful job of detailing the ends of the carriage. The interplay of positive and negative space is fantastic.

What gives it soul?

The Olivetti Lettera 36 is considerably more subdued in appearance than its forebears such as the Valentine and the Praxis 48, which we've also featured here at Mass Made Soul. It's caught between two eras - the extravagant designs of the 1960's, and the more angular, overtly "high tech" look of the late 70's and early 80's. As noted earlier, it's also part of a more unified house-style that Olivetti took on for a while, after a long time of its design language being defined by different products looking vastly different from one another.

If you'll excuse the metaphor, the Lettera 36 is like the description of a mullet: business in the front, party in the back.

If you just take the front half of the machine in isolation, you can extrapolate that out to all the beige PC's that exploded 10-15 years later. In other words, "This typewriter is about business."

In the back is where the fun happens, with the more sculptural shapes and splashes of color (but still a more business-friendly blue).

The Big Switch

But it must be said, if this was the earlier version with the cylindrical keys, I think the impression would be much different, and the overall feel would be more coherent from back to front. The change to more conventional keys due to pragmatic reasons was probably the right one from a usability standpoint (and reminds me of the hopeless-to-use round mouse that came with the original Apple iMac), but you have to wish they could have found a way to make them work, and stuck with the original design intent.

As it is, the Lettera 36 seems to be searching for a new modern identity that is more monochromatic, cleaner, but doesn't want to let go of the humanism that Sottsass sought to imbue everything with.

It's still satisfying as a design, especially if you don't know about the earlier version. But the conflicted nature of its purpose shows through in its appearance, and it doesn't quite stick the landing like some of Olivetti's other products do.