Thursday, February 13, 2014

Love letters

Last month I mentioned that I have been translating my great grandfather's letters.  Here's a little peek into that project.  This is a typewriter produced by Olivetti, the company my great grandfather founded:

The Olivetti Valentine typewriter was released on Valentine's Day in 1969.  You don't need to know a thing about typewriters or about industrial design to feel it's visual impact.  It's like a Ferrari, but with typing keys.  Its clean lines, its color (it actually came in blue and green too, but it is only ever remembered in the red), and it's curved corners pack a memorable punch.   It's portable too, with a stiff red case that slides over the body and snaps onto the back of the type writer, where there is also a built in handle.  Once you've popped it into its outer shell you get to walk down the street with a hot-rod brief case feeling like a poet-spy.

Forty-five years after its release, The Valentine has gotten cooler with age.  If you go to buy one on Etsy, you'll have to spend upwards of $750--and that is without it's must have manual.  ("Dear Valentine, This is to tell you that you are my friend as well as my Valentine, and that I intend to write you lots of letters," it reads.)

At the time it was released, though, it was a commercial failure.  It was priced too high, it didn't sell well and even Ettore Sottsass, the designer on the project, was disappointed in the design.  In an interview years later he compared it to, "a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up."  

But in 1971, only two years after the Valentine's release, it was admitted into MoMA.  Most American design museums followed suit, and this typewriter is a permanent fixture in many contemporary design collections.  More importantly, of all the typewriters that Olivetti produced the Valentine is the most memorable.  So while it failed to make any money, over the arc of time it has proven to be valuable in an entirely other realm, one that feels a lot more like magic.  It is like a dream you can't shake, poking into memory, stirring up emotion and continuing to hang around in an influential way.  It is a piece of art.

My great grandfather died twenty-six years before the Valentine was released.  Some people might say that naturally implies he had nothing to do with that design.  I disagree.  In fact, when you read the first letter I translated in this project, you'll see for yourself it would be difficult to imagine another artifact that so perfectly captures the founding of his company than the Valentine typewriter.  

Here's the letter.  My great grandfather wrote it to his wife Luisa on the occasion of producing his first typewriter in 1908.

Dearest Luigia,

This is the first letter that I'm writing on the new machine and it is with great satisfaction that I dedicate these few lines to you I hope you receive them with pleasure.  The machine isn't perfect yet, but I think in a little time we can make it as well as the best machines of its kind.

A thousand affectionate kisses for you from 

If that isn't a Valentine, I don't know what is.  A message of love carried along by the generations.  Like a child's macaroni art, and all other things worth saving,  it was created with love and saved by love.  And in the saving, some artifacts that might seem worthless in one way succeed in 10,000 ways we could never know.  The Valentine is one of these kinds of things.  

Happy Valentine's Day!


  1. I love your post. I raises the question in my mind....what is success? The Valentine is such a good cautionary tale about the measure of success. Dr. Seuss got rejected by 30 publishers. Louisa May Alcott died in 1888, and her book "A Long Fatal Love Chase" wasn't published until 1996! Here's to the Valentine!

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