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The Utopian Visions of Adriano Olivetti – Designed Ideas

“Italy nearly had its own Silicon Valley, Olivetti was our Bill Gates.”

Ivrea is a small but ancient town below the Piedmontese Alps, just one hour north of Turin. Developing around the river Dora Baltea, it has plenty of adorable Italian clichès: there are gorgeous squares packed with stylish cafes, a picturesque medieval castle, some pretty bridges over the river, a pedestrian zone with restaurants and trattorias, even tall mountains in the skyline. The city is also famous for its Carnevale, here celebrated with a twist: it is an orange battle. Every year, in fact, teams coming from the nearby villages fight across the city – throwing citrus fruits at each other to save Violetta, the miller’s daughter. Besides this curious performance – dating back to 1200 AC – Ivrea is also famous for being the home of the Olivetti factory. Via Jervis is a long road, whose right side hosts a linear building. Its structure, made with glass, iron and concrete, reminiscent of rationalism and austerity, but also, for those who know, a glorious past. On a cool day at the beginning of October, I went with my trusted 90 Punto to visit Ivrea and walk in this open-air utopia. 

Telling the life of the Olivetti family means disclosing a unique story, one of those involving grand ideas and visionary people. Bauhaus, the Cold War, American secret services, and the very first personal computer ever created are just some elements of this extraordinary family saga. Among the several Olivetti members, the second-born Adriano embodied the idea of enlightened entrepreneurs, becoming a role model for future generations. Who was Adriano Olivetti then? A genius entrepreneur, an inveterate anti-fascist, a brilliant utopian, or a socialist publisher? What makes Adriano Olivetti’s life so fascinating is also his tragic departure: a stroke on a train to Switzerland on an evening in 1960… an autopsy did not follow. This fueled conspiracy theories about his death, involving the USA Secret Service and much more, raising the mythological charisma of his persona. 

The Ing C. Olivetti & Co. was founded by Camillo Olivetti, an Italian Jewish electric engineer, in 1896 in Ivrea. In the beginning, the company specialized in instruments for electrical measurement. In 1908 it became the first factory in Italy to produce typewriters, the first model was the Olivetti M1. Conceived during the two years Camillo Olivetti taught electrical engineering at Stanford University in California, the machine became best-known for its captivating features as well as its elegant design. With the introduction of the typewriter M20 in 1920, the company became renowned – opening up supply chains in Spain, Brazil and other countries. 

Starting from 1933, and for the following twenty-seven years, Adriano Olivetti would become the main man behind the triumph of the company, transforming the family business into a famous brand, opening the path to electronic computing, with the very first calculators. Remarkably, Adriano Olivetti’s leadership shaped a new way to understand manufacturers, embracing urbanism, without exploiting the workers. His optimistic vision of a better future really created something unique in the history of Italy. 

After an American experience of industrial organization in 1925, where Adriano learned the ideas of Henry Ford, Olivetti changed the family business, implementing work turns, increasing the employees hourly salary and organizing the assembly chain. The result was so positive that the company rapidly became the lead business in Italy. Of course, the typewriters had to also be stylish, and so he formed a group of designers (Marcello Nizzoli among others), artists (Luigi Munari, Ettore Sottsass, Luigi Veronesi, Gianni Pintori) to create avant-garde machines and meaningful posters. Adriano Olivetti’s aesthetic intuitions were so unique that, in 1952 the MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art of New York dedicated an exhibition to the typewriters. 

Changing productivity, and implementing better design was only the tip of the iceberg of Adriano’s work ethic. Embracing and developing ideas powered by the Bauhaus movement and by the Italian rationalists architects Luigi Figini and Gino Pollini, Adriano organically shaped the Olivetti factories into physical concepts. Instead of building North European-inspired tower blocks, Olivetti built factories made of glass, in which the employees were able to see the mountains while working, and people outside were able to see how the factory worked. 

Conceptually, Adriano despised Capitalism – away from the dirty, dusty Taylorist brick and pipe factories, Olivetti buildings were bright, clean and represented small societies. He changed Ivrea, converting a provincial town into an important pole for Italian manufacturing. By the late 1950s, more than 14,000 people were working in Ivrea, attracting intellectuals and teachers from all over the country. Working at Olivetti was nurturing, as many initiatives were available. There were libraries of books, history, civics, politics and art were taught, art and film festivals were organized, and famous poets and writers (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Paolo Volponi among others) were invited to take part in speeches. The homes built for the employees were bright, green and there was space for a vegetable garden. Olivetti was the first company to introduce the five day working week, the nine month maternity leave, and on average an Olivetti employee earned ⅓ more than a Fiat worker. According to Olivetti, a better quality of life determines better results at work: putting the employees in the right position would increase their productivity. By the early 1960s, Olivetti was one of the leading typewriting companies in the world, the sixth most influential Italian company, sold in 117 countries, with 54.000 employees across the globe. 

For Adriano, the key to creating a better world was education. He started to invest in informatics, which he believed represented the future of communication. Together with the engineer Mario Tchou, a pioneer of computer science in Italy, in 1959 they invented the Olivetti Elea, the world’s most powerful computer, entering into competition with the famous American IBM. But whilst the USA was investing in information technology, the Italian government wasn’t helping Olivetti. The company decided to extend his business in Russia and China, a poor choice, especially during the Cold War. Soon after, both Adriano and Mario Tchou tragically passed away at the beginning of the 1960s, the latter in a car crash near Ivrea. After the death of Adriano, the company was led by Roberto Olivetti – his first-born. 

The intelligent spirit of the Olivetti family ran through Roberto as well, who, together with engineer Pier Giorgio Perotto, led a design team that built the famous Programma 101 (also known as La Perottina) the world’s first programmable calculator, used by NASA for its APOLLO missions. 

It is interesting to note that the idealistic visions of a family helped create the basis for space travel. Camillo, Adriano and later Roberto Olivetti believed in education and respect, pursuing a vision of socialism, where factories weren’t exploiting people, but places where nurturing the soul and getting skilled. The proof is in those such as Norberto Patrignani, a gentleman who used to work at the Olivetti. He told me of his time at the company, where he started as a simple worker. Thanks to the company policy regarding studies and education Norberto earned a PhD in Computer Ethics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden and eventually became a teacher at the Politecnico di Torino. 

Italy nearly had its own Silicon Valley, Olivetti was our Bill Gates. The Olivetti story teaches us that a different approach to business is possible, that diverse leadership is feasible and that only great men can see their dreams coming true.