Olivetti in Venice – The showroom and typewriters that defy time.

In every inch of its existence Venice’s history stands in contrast with commerce. The deep laneways are a wonder to wander with discoveries to be had around every corner. It is a city that grew in an era of non-existent town planning, and is all the more astonishing for it.

Between the weathered walls, glass and heavy doors, tourists wander daily – lost in a maze that conned them into being lost, while distracting them with glitter so they never care to worry. It is theme park for adults.

A book store with a gondola of books! What more could you want.

Around its busiest locations, stores and cafes are vying for your attention, splashing at you visions of wondrous, beautiful things and food at prices that they hope you forget while covet them. You want them… and they presented to you as things that make you part of the Venice life experience. Fashion labels and well groomed chefs and waiters tempt you with unattainability, making you wish you could have a piece of it.

Reportedly this view makes you sigh.

Here, the past is a commodity. There’s thousand historical sites to visit in this city, but that history is about mostly art, fabled rulers and stories of a lives long gone. Back on the streets you’re again soaked in glamour and trade of contemporary Venice and it’s all back down to business, with real-estate at a premium and filled with luxury brands.

St Mark’s Square is something of an epicentre of activity for tourism in Venice. Although famous in its own right, the square is surrounded by many of the most prominent sites of history as well as being its beating heart. The Basilica of St Mark, Doge’s Palace, The Clock Tower, Campanile, Cafes that have appeared in many Bond/glamorous movies and a vast expanse that hosts the Carnavale De Venizia. It also becomes a swimming pool every so often as the slowly sinking city floods while climate change sinks the world.

Venice… You have to really like water to live here.

It is here, in this celebrated and central location that an astonishing element of typewriter history has persisted and been kept alive

Seriously. Right here.

Completed in 1959, the Olivetti showroom in Venice is a masterpiece of mid-century modern design – much like the business and commerce tools that were once sold from inside. Designed by Carlo Scarpa, it was commissioned by Ariano Olivetti himself and took two years of work.

It’s located in a prime piece of real estate, I am frankly amazed it has survived without being gutted. After Olivetti wrapped up their business there in 1997 it become souvenir store, yet another one, competing with similar stores along the same row overlooking St Marks. in 2011 it was restored and returned to its former glory, including a collection of Olivetti machines that the FAI that preserved it refers to as ‘precious’, that were donated by Olivetti themselves from their own collection.

The showroom’s front window, as seen from St Mark’s Square.

Getting inside isn’t too hard.. It opens at 10am… Or 2pm, depending on how they feel it seems. Just don’t turn up on Monday or Tuesday. As I stepped through the door I was half-greeted by two young women who seemed to feel my entry was an impost on their day. I handed them a note to cover the8 Euro fee (yeah, not cheap) and they handed me the change while acknowledging my existence as little as possible. Once in, I had the rest of the showroom to myself as the two women continued to care little for my presence.

The front showroom

The front of the showroom is a gallery of art in its own right. Presented at each window are tables that brace from the window’s frame and ceiling above, creating an illusion that they are floating tables hovering just above the ground. Beautiful tile-work adorns the floor complimenting the pale slate on the walls, while a graceful sculpture seems to grow from a stone-filled raised garden bed. I think this may have been filled with greenery once to add air and colour to the room, but is now protected by a sheet of glass. Then again it may have always been that way though.

The typewriters here lounge in their locations complimenting the room by becoming central focal points of interest, all seemingly posing like small statues of the gods of ancient Rome.

Cat to the gods? Or calculator. You decide. Olivetti Audit 513. Adding machine that can be used as an all-caps typewriter.
A Lexicon 80 E (electric) as seen from the window.
These machines will need no introduction to collectors, but for the less experienced, we have an Adding machine, a Lettera 22 Typewriter, and a Studio 44 typewriter

Beautiful stretches of wood create transitions to more comfortable areas, leading you further into the building, making you feel more at home as you stretch away from the showroom. However, complex shapes are set into the pale concrete of the structure to allow light to bounce around into darker corners.

A few from the back, with the stairs to the right, and a sales office at the front window.

The wood designs owe more to Japanese influences than local – and are mirrored no-where else in Venice. This design language creates some interesting elements which are more prominent when you head upstairs.

It is up here that the real business happens. Broad benches are laid out at standing-desk height to allow people to get their hands on machines. Like downstairs, small offices lead off to the side where salesmen would negotiate their business but are now either empty, stuffed full with storage, or are unlit spaces containing modern Olivetti computers where you can look over the history of the store and browse the internet if you are keen to.

At one end of the top floor is a window that, while looking like an eye staring out over St Mark’s and the rest of Venice, features the most prominent Japanese influence in the structure. It features a sliding wood lattice with another heavier screen for privacy if it needed, all of carefully carved wood with minimal fasteners.

At this end, adding machines are prominently displayed for positioned for demonstrating.

At the other end at the top of the Stairs, there is a lounge and a handful of office suites, along with a garden – this time filled with plants rather than sculpture. Further lattices filter the light coming from the lagoon at the back of the building.

This showroom is an incredible artefact of mid-century modern design, and an important piece of preserved typewriter history. Often as collectors we focus on the typewriters themselves, with very little representation from the world that they existed in. Here you can almost feel the ghosts of the businessmen holidaying in Venice, opting for a moment to evaluate equipment purchases for their offices. Or perhaps travelling writers and journalists dropping in to a store amongst the high-fashion fronts looking for an elegant and graceful machine to replace the old hacker they have.

Amongst the fashion houses, it seems almost strange to have such a showroom. But then again… There are plenty of icons of fashion who have been seen with a crafty yet sexy Olivetti.

Richard Burton accompanied by an Olivetti Valentine typewriter and Elizabeth Taylor. High fashion indeed.


4 thoughts on “Olivetti in Venice – The showroom and typewriters that defy time.

  1. How incongruous – such stark mid-century modernism right there. Many thanks for the ‘virtual tour’, despite my general dislike of mcm, something like that could be a destination to experience (if Venice becomes a viable destination again of course 🙂 .


  2. I’m glad that you soldiered on past the indifference shown to you by the Olivetti showroom staff, going on to throughly capture this place with your camera. The images that you’ve shared here are wonderful. A very interesting read all in all. Thanks for sharing!


  3. yeah wow, like robertG said, such an amazing modernist contrast in such a classical/venetian setting. Great post and tour photos. I think about venice a lot… it’s such a magical/theatric place, and yet so hoarded by tourists it doesn’t seem quite real. I miss it a lot.


  4. Thanks for sharing these pictures and thoughts, and for the unbelievable image of Taylor and Burton lugging around a Valentine (unexpected and most fitting). I know relatively well this wonderful place, I just want to add that such breathtaking wood structures are (understandably) scarce everywhere but present elsewhere in Venice, where the few works of Scarpa (most renowned Venetian architect in the past century) makes the city thick of his works (as very very few institutions could afford his stature). These are the magnificent SIAE building and the breathtaking Aula Scarpa in the old Ca’ Foscari University building (both on the Grand Canal). The large windows on the latter are the only place I know that offer the simultaneous view of both the Rialto and Accademia bridges, and everything sailing in between in front of you… while the intricate masterpiece of Scarpa lies behind you, all in one room. Unfortunately, both places are relatively difficult to access.


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