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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Underwood 450: American Name, American Design, Made by Italian Company in Spain

John Svezia, left, brainstorming with his boss George Nelson.
The Underwood 450 semi-portable typewriter was the first distinctly different Underwood portable to appear on the market in six years, since a modified Olivetti Studio 44 appeared as the Underwood 21 in 1961. The 450 was also to be the last distinctly different Underwood.
The Underwood 450 was designed by an American, John Svezia, of Millburn, New Jersey. Svezia worked for New York designers Nelson & Company, under architect, industrial designer, writer, editor, gadfly and master impresario George Nelson (1908-86). Olivetti was one of Nelson’s clients and Svezia was commissioned to design typewriters for the Olivetti Underwood Corporation of New York (incorporated in Delaware) in 1967.
Svezia’s work means that until Olivetti moved production to Brazil in the late 1970s, the Underwood 450 was the only Olivetti portable typewriter designed by a non-Italian. Ettore Sottsass, Olivetti's head of design when the Underwood 450 was made, had worked alongside Svezia at Nelson’s studios.
With subsequent slight alterations to the mask – most probably made by Sottsass himself - the Underwood 450 later became the Olivetti Studio 45, which was launched in 1968. 
The Studio 45 I used today to compare masks with the Underwood 450 was one I bought in New Zealand in early 1969. On and off I have been using it for 44 years.
Svezia’s Underwood 450 design preceded the Olivetti Studio 45. When he applied for a patent for his design, Svezia cited only one other patent, the one the great Henry Dreyfuss had applied for in 1945 after being commissioned by Royal to re-design the Quiet DeLuxe. Svezia also referred to an early Silver-Seiko (Silver-Reed) typewriter.
The changes made by Olivetti for the Studio 45 are concentrated on the front section. The carriage remains identical to the Underwood 450. The mechanics for both these machines are exactly the same as those used for the 1963 Olivetti Lettera 32, 1966 Dora and 1969 Valentine.
(The ridiculously thin piece of foam rubber used under the mechanics creates a problem in both the Underwood 450 and Studio 45, as with time it becomes so dry and brittle it is virtually very thick dust. Also, take care when putting either of these machines in their almost identical cases - unless the carriage lever is positioned probably, the carriage release lever on the left with lose its knob. Another thing to watch for, common to both models, are the carriage ball bearings.) 
In the front section, the Studio 45 has a smaller ribbon spool cover on top, meaning the structure of the sides and front around the keyboard differ from the Underwood 450. In turn, this means a different arrangement for the base plate, as, apart from the ribbon spool cover, the Studio 45 mask is one piece, whereas the Underwood 450 has two sections – the base plate is separate.
These are mere cosmetic changes and no patent was applied for nor issued for the Olivetti Studio 45 as a separate entity from the preceding Underwo0d 450. The Studio 45 and three advances on the Lettera 22 - the Lettera 32, DL and Dora - are the only Olivetti portables between 1949-90 for which no US design patents were applied. When drastic design changes weren't being made, Olivetti didn't bother with new patents.
When Mario Bellini succeeded Sottsass as Olivetti’s head designer, and produced the design for the Studio 46 in 1975, he cited Svezia’s design for the Underwood 450 as a reference. Bellini also cited an earlier Svezia typewriter design, assigned to Olivetti Underwood, for his Lettera 25 and Lettera 35 design.
The interior of the East 22nd Street office, with Svezia’s Sling Sofa in the foreground.
The Nelson office produced a series of classics: the Coconut chair, the Marshmallow sofa, the Ball clock, the Bubble lamps, and the Action Office systems. The firm spearheaded the American National Exhi­bition in Moscow, where several hundred American-made products were shown on a vast, three-dimensional jungle-gym display; it became the backdrop for the famous “kitchen debate” between then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev.
The office was straight out of Mad Men, with men in crisp white shirts and ties, and the few women in black dresses - cigarette smoke everywhere, classical music in the background, and Nelson, ever the impresario, standing in the middle of the tumult with a camera dangling from his shoulders.
George Nelson
Sottsass, along with Michael Graves and Peter Marino, was one of the visiting designers who spent time in the office. Resident designers – Svezia (whose main claim to fame is the Sling Sofa), George Tscherny, Tomoko Miho, Lucia DeRespinis, Irving Harper and Ron Beckman – were equally talented, and they worked on practically everything: exhibitions, interiors, graphics, architecture, and industrial design. 
Svezia's Sling Sofa
Apart from Olivetti, clients included Abbott, BP, Ford, General Electric and Herman Miller, as well as the United States Government.
Svezia's Underwood 450 also influenced the design of this Citizen typewriter:

More on the Underwood 450 and Olivetti Studio 45:


shordzi said...

Excellent comparison, very rich article. Intriguing photo series at the end, which several similar yet distinct shots. Austria Australia connection working again, as today I demounted two Hermes Babys and swapped their shells.

Toronto guy said...

Excellent write up!

Robert, I've been lurking on your site for a little while. I've recently begun using typewriters as part of my writing routine and even though I don't consider myself to be a collector, I've accumulated a few machines in the past three months and I've been quite surprised at how different each one of them feels.

Right now, my favourite typewriter has to be the Lettera 22 (actually a "made in Canada", underwood olivetti). I divide my time between this machine and the Hermes 3000. I also have a Lettera 25, but I just don't use it anymore.

Now I know that the 25 has the same basic insides as the 32, as do the host of other machines you mention in this article (the Dora, DL, Valentine, etc.). I'm curious as to what accounts for the different touch and all-round typing/user experience each one of these seems to have. I would think that if the innards are the same, that the outer-shell would only account for a difference in feel in so much as it would counterweight against the typing of the keys and the carriage return.

And then I think back to that blog posting you put up the other day from that British consumer report magazine from the early 1960s where it mentions that every individual machine can have its own touch, irrespective of manufacturer, and how they tried to pin down the fairest review was by testing two machines of each make and model (I am, of course, paraphrasing).

That makes me wonder, were the manufacturing tolerances on the machined parts of those pre-1970s, non-Asian made, typewriters sometimes a little too liberal? Or was this a quality control issue? For example, you mention that the Olivetti Studio 45 is a "markedly better typer" than the Underwood 450... what do you suppose accounts for that? Is it a matter of the feel of the individual machines or is there an actual difference in the "guts"?

On my part, if the Olivetti Lettera 25 that I own is any indication of how a Lettera 32 feels like to type on, I much prefer the tighter, more springy, responsive action of the 22 and would take it any day over a 32. But then I suspect if I had an actual 32 and another example of a 22, that I might be of a very different opinion.

Sorry for the long post/rant, but I respect your opinion, and the amazing work you put in day after day on this blog, very much and would be thrilled to hear your thoughts. Many thanks!

Duffy Moon said...

Fascinating write-up, as always.

Cara T. said...

Just stumbled upon your site - my Dad is John Svezia and it is funny and kind of neat to see his name, photo and designs online! Growing up I remember the typewriters in the house, especially the Olivetti ones. The sling sofa is in their living room as well!
Thanks for the throw back!!