David Rowan, Brit Insurance Design Awards juror 2010, told us about his favourite design of all time…
“The Olympia SG1 manual typewriter. A brilliantly functional mass-produced machine whose heavy steel box belies the mechanical magic that goes on underneath, and all to empower the user as a more authoritative and confident communicator. When I first discovered my mother’s Olympia at age nine, I was transfixed: suddenly I could publish my own one-off magazines, in black and even red lettering. Using an electric or phone keyboard can never replicate that physical satisfaction of typing out a sentence.”
Rise and fall of a cult classic
1903, Berlin: Dr. Friedrich von Hefner-Alteneck from European General Electric (AEG) developed the first prototype of the Olympia typewriter, called “Mignon”. Unfortunately it was too expensive for many potential custumer of that time.
1912: a new improved Mignon “AA” was created. The commercial success of Olympia (model 3) arrived under than 9 years later and in 1923 AEG Company inaugurated the first shop in Erfurt, Germany.
1930: Olympia became a brand.
Post-second world war: the East German government renamed the Olympia factory “Optima”, but in 1948 in Wilhelmshaven (West Germany) several employees continued to produce Olympia typewritersand in 1949 the International Court of Justice at The Hague settled the dispute between East and West Germany over rights to the Olympia brand name.
60s, the Olympia typewriter’s boom: “about half of the typewriters in use in Germany were Olympia portables. [...] from the 1950s through the 1970s–Olympia portable typewriters were known for craftsmanship, eye-catching design, and continuous innovation. [...] features such as individually-spring-loaded keys provided extra comfort and cushioning, bringing in customers despite the high price point of Olympias”. (vintagetypewriterjewelry.com). Olympia enlarged its market in many different countries and became a very popular object, featuring also in Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “Marnie” starring Tippi Hedren as a disturbed secretary. In that film the actress used the SG-3 which remplaced the SG-1in the 1964.
Tippi Hedren with Alfred Hitchcock and the Olympia typewriter SG-3
The computer era: the decline of Olympia started in the 70s until the closure of the company in 1992. Nowadays Olympia is a cult classic that reminds us how fast innovation and technology can change our objects and our relationship with them. Computers are faster and incomparably more technologic, perfect for the needs of the contemporary consumer, but using an old typewriter is a different experience. The writer Paul Auster dedicated a book to his story with his Olympia typewriter (Auster P., The Story of My Typewriter, 2002). Auster spoke about his typwriter during an interview that he did for The Paris Review; this is an extract from that conversation:
“Because the typewriter forces me to start all over again once I’m finished. With a computer, you make your changes on the screen and then you print out a clean copy. With a typewriter, you can’t get a clean manuscript unless you start again from scratch. It’s an incredibly tedious process. You’ve finished your book, and now you have to spend several weeks engaged in the purely mechanical job of transcribing what you’ve already written. It’s bad for your neck, bad for your back, and even if you can type twenty or thirty pages a day, the finished pages pile up with excruciating slowness. That’s the moment when I always wish I’d switched to a computer, and yet every time I push myself through this final stage of a book, I wind up discovering how essential it is. Typing allows me to experience the book in a new way, to plunge into the flow of the narrative and feel how it functions as a whole. I call it “reading with my fingers,” and it’s amazing how many errors your fingers will find that your eyes never noticed. Repetitions, awkward constructions, choppy rhythms. It never fails. I think I’m finished with the book and then I begin to type it up and I realize there’s more work to be done.”
Additional readings and virtual museums dedicated to old typewriters: