Not everybody knows... Adriano Olivetti, the Made in Italy Man of the future

First-born in a family of 6 children, a Jewish socialist entrepreneur and the sober daughter of a local waldensian pastor, Adriano received his primary education at home under the tutelage of the mother, worked as an apprentice in the family company for many years during the time away from study and after graduation in chemical engineering at the Polytechnic of Turin, moved to the United States to learn the roots of the American Industrial power.

Back home he reorganized the family company into a factory with departments and divisions and later on introduced an advertising unit, which worked with artists and designers, including Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Gae Aulenti, Egon Eiermann, Figini-Pollini, Ignazio Gardella, BBPR and many others. As a result of this reorganization, output per man-hour doubled within five years, the company for the first time sold half of the typewriters used in Italy in 1933 and Olivetti machines soon became symbols of design, interaction and usability,anti-machines by definition. In the 1950s Olivetti was widely considered to be the world-leader in office technology. It had grown into a global presence with 24,000 employees and 17 overseas facilities, with notable product models such as Lexikon 80 (1948), the Divisumma calculator (1948), the famous Lettera 22 portable (1950) and the Lexicon 80E (1955, the first electric typewriter model) all famous as inimitable icons of functionality and design Made in Italy. 

Adriano Olivetti was a controversial social reformer who believed that the company profits should be reinvested for the benefit of both the company and the local community. Throughout his life, he pioneered new approaches to business and industry while contributing towards the economic restoration of his home country after the Second World War until his untimely death aged only 59. 

Almost 120 years after Robert Owen, he implemented in Ivrea (Piedmont) an industrial model beyond socialism and capitalism pivoted on the cardinal principle that workers’ health creates company’s wealth. Adriano decreased the hours of work, reorganized the production system into departments and divisions, shared with his workers the productivity gains by increasing salaries, fringe benefits and services, and supervised a housing plan for the workers at Ivrea and a zoning proposal for the adjacent Aosta Valley. By 1957 his workers were the best paid and the most productive in the Italian metallurgical industry and they accepted a company union not tied to the powerful national metallurgical trade unions.

In 1960 on the morning of February 27th this adventure stopped abruptly when he got on a train in Switzerland and died of heart attack, leaving behind a trail of questions, doubts and regrets. The most obvious result of his vision and efforts was to provide to postwar Italian economy a well trained breed of designers, technicians and engineers together with a mission and philosophy that no other company in continental Europe could equal, as testified by the architect and designer Mario Bellini, remembering the way the idea of a personal computer was conceived by Roberto, Adriano’s son:

I remember that one day I received a call from Roberto Olivetti: “I want to see you for a complex project I’m building”. It involved the design not of a box containing mechanisms and stamped circuits, but a personal object, something that had to live with a person, a person with his chair sitting at a table or desktop and that had to start a relationship of comprehension, of interaction, something quite new because before then computers were as big as a wardrobe. With a wardrobe we don’t have any relationship: in fact the most beautiful wardrobes disappear in the wall. But this wasn’t a wardrobe or a box, this was a machine designed to be part of your personal entourage…

— Mario Bellini, 2011, “Programma 101 — memory of the future”, cit.