Listen to Your Chair: Design and the Art of Storytelling
When the Italian manufacturer Olivetti launched Valentine in February of that year, it was like Brigitte Bardot entering a universe of Plain Janes. Light as a feather, sumptuous lines, a risqué red and a cleavage revealing two perfectly sized orange spools
Whether in a traditional Berber market or in the world of design—storytelling follows the same basic rules. It is an interactive process following an impermanent script that is constantly rewritten. As the narrative evolves, the storyteller and the listeners change roles, adding different voices and layers to the story, weaving in feedback, and refocusing. Whether the story is actually true, whether it really happened, doesn’t matter. Storytelling follows the laws of fiction—it is sincere only about being imaginary. What matters instead of truth is the coherence of a story—how persuasively it is told. The tools that help critics, curators, and amateurs assess whether a story is coherent or not are simple. They are the same basic questions that all tales rest upon. Do we find a stunning plot, for example? A compelling character to identify with? Convincing dialogues? What is the tone of the story and does it suit the general theme? Does the setting fit the rest of the narrative and from what point of view do we actually hear the story? The answers to these and other similar questions will tell us everything about the quality of a narrative—and of the object itself.
When Ettore Sottsass went traveling with Eulalia, he had already turned away from Valentine. Yet, as with all love affairs, it had started all sunshine and roses. “Her name is Valentine,” Sottsass wrote in the summer of ‘69, presenting the bright red-and-orange typewriter he had designed with Perry King, “and she was intended for use any place except in an office, so as not to remind anyone of monotonous working hours, but rather to keep amateur poets company on quiet Sundays in the country.” He praised Valentine as “an anti-machine machine,” an “unpretentious toy,” a “successful transformation of a useful object into a means of expression.” Ads and posters, designed by Sottsass himself and by other graphic designers, showed sexy, young women, scantily clad libertines, wild and free-spirited. We see beaches and bikinis, trains and planes, blond hair and tanned thighs. Like Pygmalion, Sottsass had fallen in love with his own creation.
Or so it seems. For reality and legend blur. Sottsass has been credited repeatedly with these words of courtship, yet the original article from 1969, published in the Italian design magazine Abitare, names no author. Was it by the maestro himself, refraining from official authorship? By an anonymous editor? Or a press release, copied without further editing? Sottsass’s name doesn’t show up in the magazine’s imprint either. But then, does it matter? For history, it certainly should. For the story however, it doesn’t. “From a small number of perfectly ordinary words a tapestry takes shape, suggestive of a dream, but close enough to reality which, more often than not, remains elusive,” says Hassan, the protagonist of Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Storyteller of Marrakesh.
Soon enough, romance was over anyway. The year 1970 was a difficult one for Sottsass. After 21 years, he left his wife Fernanda Pivano, a translator and writer from Turin, and started a semi-nomadic life with Eulalia Grau, a young artist from Barcelona. And after not even two years, he turned his back on Valentine, at the same time ending a much longer-lasting relation to industrial design and dedicating himself to art and photography instead.
Sottsass recovered from his life crisis. An invitation to participate in the Cooper-Hewitt’s inaugural exhibition in 1976 in New York came as an opportunity to resume work and, eventually, his previous profession as an architect. What remained was an unforgiving resentfulness against Valentine. “They told me to design a very poor machine,” Sottsass told Icon magazine almost 40 years later, in April 2007. “So I said, OK, if this machine has to become a sort of biro of typewriters, I design a very popular machine. It was a mistake.” He also dismissed Valentine as being “too obvious, a bit like a girl wearing a very short skirt and too much make-up.” Poor Valentine got to carry the whole load of Sottsass’s despise for a consumerist society on her fragile shoulders.
Yet, it was her very sex appeal that made Valentine special. She was, after all, a typewriter. And typewriters, in 1969, were gray, beige, dull. When the Italian manufacturer Olivetti launched Valentine in February of that year, it was like Brigitte Bardot entering a universe of Plain Janes. Light as a feather, sumptuous lines, a risqué red and a cleavage revealing two perfectly sized orange spools. Dressing up—Valentine was portable—she slipped into a sleek case, red of course. “Red is the color of the Communist flag,” Sottsass said to The New York Times in2006, “the color that makes a surgeon move faster and the color of passion.” And the author adds, “Red was his way of bringing a machine from the business world into the realm of the senses and emotions, or from the office into the bedroom.”
“There is nothing harder than the creation of fictional character,” says James Wood in his handbook How Fiction Works.Ettore Sottsass, architect, designer, painter, photographer, writer and philosopher, born in 1917 in Innsbruck, Austria, and deceased in 2007 in Milan, Italy, was a master in the creation of fictional character. “His greatest innovation is nothing less than giving souls to objects,” said Paola Antonelli, curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1998. And around those soulful objects, Sottsass weaved intriguing tales, using shape, texture, volume and color, which, for him, were “languages as direct as the spoken word.”
Like any good storyteller, Sottsass crafted his words fastidiously. This might sound unreasonable, especially in view of his more and more flamboyant style, the opulence of postmodern icons such as his Carlton shelf from 1981: a motley collection of askew laminated plywood boards. Yet, the Italian maestro was neither flashy nor obvious in his sense-making. “In your latest projects, there is a level of absolute abstraction,” said the Italian designer Fabio Novembre in a conversation with Sottsass in 2005, “a minimal gesture will do to convey meaning.” But Sottsass has always kept a high level of abstraction, even in his earlier work. Thus he followed a golden rule of storytelling: show; don’t tell.
“Describing rather than evoking is perhaps the most common error of beginner writers,” says Garry Disher in his handbook Writing Fiction. The same holds true for oral and visual storytelling. And as we can see in Stefano Giovannoni’s work, for example, the show-don’t-tell mistake is not limited to beginners. His eggcups, corkscrews, cotton swab holders and other knick-knacks for Alessi have literal faces: eyes, noses, ears. Yet, it doesn’t take that much to interpret an object as a human or animal figure. We will take the smallest hint of a beaming smile, a lazy gaze, or a pair of slender legs and start to read an object as a character. In Valentine’s case, all we need is some red and two orange spools.
It speaks in favor of Sottsass and Valentine’s qualities as storytellers that the narrative evolving from the little red typewriter becomes so rich and layered. Through Valentine, the Italian maestro did not only talk to us about the humdrum of everyday office life and the desire for color, freedom and eros. Anticipating the fervid critique on a rigidly ideological modernism that Sottsass would express by cofounding the Memphis group in 1981, Valentine and her master storyteller also made a statement. “Romantics don’t often lead the avant-garde—they tend to prefer the rearguard,” says Icon magazine, “but in using colors, forms and materials that snubbed the efficiency of the machine, that is what [Sottsass] was doing through the late 1960s and 70s.”
Ooh, romance. Is it coincidence that Valentine wears red, the color of Cupid’s favorite target? Is it coincidence that she bears the name of the lovers’ patron saint? Hardly, as it fits neatly into Olivetti’s marketing plan: Valentine hit the stores on February 14. And Sottsass’s posters for the ad campaign carried captions like, “Pick me, says the flower. Eat me, says the fruit. Love pleads: don’t forget me. And Valentine: take me with you.” A typewriter meant to put on paper not only poetry, but also love letters. Yet, what sounds like a melodrama, overly performed for the sake of filthy lucre, seemed to reflect the true culture of Olivetti, too. “It was a fantastic company,” says graphic designer Milton Glaser, who has worked with Olivetti for decades, “and the company was full of poets.”
Valentine, first wooed, then rejected by her creator; Valentine, the sexy girl, the free spirit, the big romantic; Valentine, the design critic and marketing genius. With her many facets, the red typewriter is what E.M. Forster, grand novelist and author of Aspects of the Novel, calls a “round” character. “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way,” he says. In contrast, flat characters “are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round.”
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If we look at objects as storytellers and stories, we should look at them as fiction, too—all the more if they have a pedigree and a public relations agenda. This is the only exit from a fruitless debate whether design is true or not and, ultimately, the most truthful way to view objects. “The only reason that the phrase ‘fictional truth’ is not an oxymoron, as ‘fictitious truth’ would be, is that fiction is a genre whereas lies are not,” says Michael Riffaterre in his book Fictional Truth. “Being a genre, it rests on conventions, of which the first and perhaps only one is that fiction specifically, but not always explicitly, excludes the intention to deceive. A novel always contains signs whose function is to remind readers that the tale they are being told is imaginary.”
Fiction comes from the Latin ficio, “act of fashioning, shaping, making”—and what is design, if not an act of fashioning, shaping, or making?