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Saturday 21 July 2012

The Olivetti Praxis 48 Typewriter: Sottsass's Real Green-Eyed Beauty

prax·is   (prӑk’sĭs) 
n. pl. prax·es (prӑk’sēz’) 
1. Practical application or exercise of a branch of learning.
2. Habitual or established practice; custom.
[Medieval Latin prāxis, from Greek prāxis, from prāssein, prāg-, to do.]
I have no learning in electrical appliances, but a practical application
got my Olivetti Praxis 48 electric typewriter working
without its designated power cord.
One typewriter which would most definitely have been included in my exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery – if I had owned one when the selection process was underway – is the Olivetti Praxis 48.
Unfortunately, however, my Praxis 48 arrived here two days after the exhibition opened. To my eyes, the Praxis 48 is a far more striking example of Ettore Sottsass’s design genius than the typewriter for which he is most famous: the Olivetti Valentine.
I fell head over heels in love with the Praxis 48 the moment I first saw one. I think it was the green keytops that did it. As I admired the machine behind its glass case, however, I also noted the finely corrugated side and back panels, and the way the keyboard juts out at the front at a 90 degree angle to the housing, and "floats" above the writing surface.
This was in 2007, and the Praxis 48 was in a display cabinet at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where I had gone to see the museum’s Sholes and Glidden.
Matthew Connell, the Powerhouse’s curator in charge of its typewriter collection, noticed my interest in the Praxis 48. “We now have a policy in place against accepting ad hoc donations," he explained. "A chap [William Law] drove up to the boom gates here and offered to give us a typewriter. The policy was explained to him, so he said in that case he’d just have to dump it somewhere. A call was put through and when it became apparent what the typewriter was, it was decided to bend the rules a little and accept the gift.”
With the Powerhouse Praxis 48, the ribbon colour selector switch
appears to be on the left and the on-off switch on the right?
My envy of the Powerhouse owning such a gift turned me as green as the Praxis 48 keytops!
I vowed and declared I had to have one. But for five years I kept a careful daily watch on typewriters coming up for sale on Australian eBay, even adding “Praxis 48” to a wish list, but none appeared. On one occasion, a Praxis 48 was listed on US eBay, and I was prepared to consider the cost of shipping this small yet hefty electric to Australia. But the owner, in all fairness to him, insisted that the machine was not alone not in working order, it was definitely beyond fixing.
In the meantime, I haunted op-shops in the vain hope of finding one the way Alan Seaver had. At the Fyshwick Salvation Army store, a sign saying, "Praxis 48", with my phone number beside it, hung on the check-out wall for many a year. It can now come down.
Finally, after so long a wait, a Praxis 48 was listed in Melbourne on June 29, for $10. My chance had come, and I didn’t miss it.
The Powerhouse Museum’s Praxis 48 is in fact an Olivetti-Underwood model and was made in Don Mills in the North York district of Toronto, Canada.
Mine is an Olivetti made in Ivrea, Italy.
There is also a Praxis 48 in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the claim is made that Sottsass collaborated in the design with Czech Hans von Klier. There is no indication in the patent applications, however, that this is the case.
What is revealing about Sottsass’s patent is that he took his lead from a 1959 Royal electric designed by Charles Jaworski, of West Hartford, Connecticut (also largely responsible for the design of the Royal Safari portable).
Going back even further, Sottsass came up the idea of the keyboard “floating” out from the body of the machine from a 1950 design by Robert H.Hose, of New York, and Ralph A.Larsson, of Chicago, for the Teletype Model 28 page printer.
Bob Hose, born in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, in 1915, started at Bell Labs under consultant Henry Dreyfuss in 1939. He joined the Dreyfuss organisation as an associate in 1946, and later became a partner. While with Dreyfuss, Hose was an unsung contributor to the design of a number of Dreyfuss telephones, including the 500 (1949), the wall mounted phone (1956), the first push-button phone (1958), the Princess phone (1959), as well as Hoover products including the Constellation (1955).
Bob Hose
Somehow, too, Sottsass got the 1964 Aztec 700 manual portable typewriter into the equation – but I can’t work out quite how!
Martin Rice Collection
As with so many of these electric Olivettis, the power cord was missing from my Praxis 48. (I had only just a few weeks earlier received a request from a forensic science laboratory in Sydney, asking if I had a spare Praxis cord!)
Experts in the field of electric typewriters, such as Peter Brill - visiting Canberra for my exhibition - pointed out that Olivetti used a singular power connection, as it did with other typewriter components, like the ribbon spools. There was no way a more universal cord could be used on these mid-60s Olivettis, with a jack of three small, round pins requiring a peculiar female plug.
My search of electrical shops confirmed this, with electricians shaking their heads and saying they’d never seen a jack quite like it. None of them stocked a terminal that would go anywhere near it.
In desperation, I tried something completely different – and it worked. I took the cover plate off the bottom of the Praxis 48, snipped the two wires attached to the power connection and reattached these two wires to a standard power cord, using screw-down safety clamps.
It worked a treat. Having thoroughly tested this arrangement, I can say it is completely safe. Anyone trying this might like to extend the wires out from underneath the machine, to ensure the typewriter continues to sit flat on all four boots.
For me, this “re-wiring” was a most satisfactory alternative to an unobtainable  specialist Olivetti power cord, and turned a machine that might have been just a showpiece into a fully functioning model. I couldn’t be more pleased with it.
Alan Seaver Collection
Many other Typospherians and collectors, such as Peter Baker and Alan Seaver, have acquired a Praxis 48. Like them, I would normally shy away from electric typewriters, but in the case of the Praxis 48 I found it irresistible. Peter posted on Praxis 48 his last August, on his Manual Entry blog. See.
On his Machines of Loving Grace website, Alan says, “The Praxis 48 is one of Ettore Sottsass's less famous designs for Olivetti. Although not terribly remarkable from a modern perspective, this electric was fairly radical when it was introduced in 1964. One wonders if there isn’t a bit of Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration in the cantilevered keyboard and abundant right angles. The ribbon cover comes forward and tilts down in what may be a deliberate echo of the Studio 42. Inside, the ribbon spools are mounted almost vertically. Its power cord went missing long before I found the Praxis on a thrift store shelf, but it's nonetheless a significant enough model in the history of typewriter design to merit displaying.”
Alan has scanned in the Praxis 48 manual, a PDF of which can be found here.
GTHawk is another Praxis 48 owner. In 2009, David Hill wrote, “You never know where you might discover a classic of modern design. People sometimes end up with classics without even knowing it … My favourite is when they show up at garage sales, thrift stores or on eBay. A designer friend of mine once bought a fully functional typewriter designed by Ettore Sottsass at the local Goodwill store for $5 [no, Sottsass actually designed it elsewhere!]. The model he scored was the Olivetti Praxis 48, released in 1964. It is a true beauty that you can see at design museums all over the world. Sottsass creatively juxtaposed hard ribbed forms with soft colourful keys that make me smile every time I see them. One man's trash is another man's treasure."
Sydney's Powerhouse Museum says of its Praxis 48 that Sottsass “went beyond the traditional bounds of office design, efficiency for efficiency's sake, by including considerations about the object’s symbolic and psychological functions. The Praxis has been cited as an example of this in that it ‘gave a new identity to the typewriter: with its carriage at the same level as the machine body, it was a small, light, compact electric machine’. Domus, a contemporary design journal, described the Praxis 48 as ‘almost a toy, a decorative object which can be left on the table’.
“The styling of Olivetti products and the awareness (design as an appendage of contemporary life rather than a piece of office-bound machinery) of the human relationship with the machine at this time (c 1965) put Olivetti in a league of its own.”
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Praxis 48 (above) has inspired work in polygonal modelling, using modo, the package developed by Luxology.
Some more images of my Praxis 48:


Ton S. said...

I keep telling myself that if I must have one electric typewriter, it's got to be an Olivetti Praxis.

Richard P said...

Congratulations on this machine. I actually found one at my own local thrift store (op shop) 2 or 3 years ago, but for a change I passed it by. Modern electrics aren't my thing, I said (and I believe the cord was missing too). Still, I was tempted by the very distinctive keyboard.

maschinengeschrieben said...

The keyboard of the praxis is clearly very unique. How big is one of these keytops?

Bill M said...

Very nice post! Thank you. I mistakenly posted my first machine was an IBM Selectric-II on my blog. I lied. It was an Olivetti Praxis 48 complete with the cord. I gave it away with the IBM after I got a PC. Very big mistake on both.

I really liked the Praxis. Mine came from a yard sale or the flea market in VA in the mid 80s.

I still like the Praxis 48 & the Selectrics, but may never get another of either due to space limitations.

The only thing I did not like was the short carriage on the Praxis. It could fit 90% of what I typed, but if I wanted to do a file folder I had to use a label. Hence, the IBM with a wider carriage.

Given a choice I would choose the Olivetti Praxis if I could add but one electric to my collection. They are so great looking and work just as fine -- if you have (or can fit) a cord.

Thanks for the wonderful post.

deek said...

There's two of these on eBay US (yes, I considered buying one after reading this wonderful writeup) right now.

Once has a cord, but doesn't work. The other looks to be in great shape, but no cord (thus AS-IS).

notagain said...

Jay Respler has a supply of those cords. I had one of these that I should have kept but I sent it away and it was destroyed in transit.

Anonymous said...

I owned 2 Praxis 48's back in the 70's; unfortunately, their reliability never matched their beauty. Olivetti used the same pedestal keys on some of their later Editor office electrics; they are extremely comfortable to type on-I had them on the 4C and the 5. If I wanted an electric just to look at without typing on it, it'd be that Praxis, still. Richard K/Texas

Unknown said...

This is the first time I see an Olivetti Praxis, but I fell in love with these keys. It's an interesting, modern design. I don't consider it to be elegant though (unlike a Selectric I), but still love it.

Rob Bowker said...

As they say in Australia, "she's a real beaut." That uncompromising 'flying' keyboard and subtle decorations. You just know there was some fun applied to the rigour of the design process.

Vintage Rhino said...

We're about to list this exact model on Etsy-- I'm still researching a little, but your blog was very helpful! Thank you for all of the great information!

Anonymous said...

I am new to the world of typewriters, but I think my instincts have served me well this time. I just bought a Praxis 48 @ a church garage sale for $1.00. It has a cord, but makes a scary buzzing noise. As a result, we turned it off. It looks like it is in good physical condition, but dusty. So... Should I have it repaired? Can anyone recommend some reputable repairers? What do you think it might be worth "as is" vs repaired. Guidance is welcome!
Thank you!

bjcpdx said...

Dozens of these can be seen in the movie "How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying" (1967).

HenningS said...

I saw one of these in the window of a used-typewriters shop maybe 17 years ago (the shop must have been on its last leg even then) and immediately fell in love with it. I don't even collect typewriters, and I worked with computers. I bought it for less than $20 and used it as a decoration by my workplace. And it had a power cord. :-)

Unknown said...

WOW! For some strange reason, I was remembering a job I had for years in the 70s, and how much I loved my Olivetti Praxis typewriter. Googling brought me here and the memories flooded back. I must have typed a million pages on that thing. It had the most satisfying feel of any keyboard I have ever used. Thanks for the smiles.

McTaggart said...

The most advanced electric/mechanical typewriter incorporating the cool modern design by Sottsass. It is worth noting that the power cord of the old Hecla electric kettles will suffice.

Smarcy76 said...

I have come across a teletype 28. I can't find much information on it...Could you point me in the right direction? Thank you I'm advance.

Edwin Feliu said...

After seeing this Olivetti on Oz and Polt's blog, I decided I wanted one, and bought one yesterday via eBay. Today I saw another that was also in good shape and had a case. I'm ashamed to say I ordered that one, too. I hope they live up to expectations.

Editor said...

I owned an Olivetti Praxis 48 when I was young. It wasn't, surprisingly, a comfortable typewriter to type on because the keys were so small (there's a reason why most keyboards have larger keys). Also, it was a little too loud, which made it hard to think. However, I loved to just look at the machine because it was so beautiful. It was like having a Maserati that didn't drive particularly well. I don't know what happened to that typewriter. I don't remember giving it away or selling it, but I no longer have it.

I earned my living by typing all my life. I went from a typewriter to a Vydec to the NBI word-processing system to WordPerfect, and I've been in love with WordPerfect ever since. (I occasionally worked on other systems too: Selectrics, Magcards, Wangs, Multi-Mate, Microsoft Word (yuck). I don't need a typewriter for ANYTHING these days, not even envelopes, but I still miss them. It still amazes me that the typewriter ended up biting the dust, but I guess it was inevitable. The convenience of fixing up a document on a screen before printing a perfect copy is just too great. Surprisingly, typewriters were with us for less than a century before they were replaced. Oh, and let me say that I'm still shocked that Smith-Corona went out of business. They were such a major company that no one thought they could go under.

I'm only 66, but the world has changed tremendously since I was young.

Mark said...

I just acquired a Olivetti Underwood PRAXIS 48 Electric Typewriter with MODERN DESIGN. The motor runs fine but it won't type when I press the keys. Do you know what might be causing this?

McTaggart said...

Yes, press your back space key it will unlock your keyboard

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to pipe in that I used to type out my university essays on a typewriter I borrowed from my Dad, which happen to be an Olivetti Praxis 48. I never forgot how wonderful it's keyboard was, how wonderful it was to type on those keys even though I didn't have any typing skills at the time.
Time passed for a long while, and then I bought one for myself (with a cord :) and it hums beautifully. It is a fantastic typewriter. I was lucky, mine was well taken care of and very well maintained. It is a joy to type on that beautiful machine. So fast and so perfect.

Marcin said...

That Royal HE is beautiful, and it’s so hard to find any information about it.

Marcin said...

Perhaps the Aztec 700 connection is the spacebar integrated with the bottom of the case?

Unknown said...

I just happened upon one of these on the shop goodwill site. I LOVE it!!! Mine came with the cord and a silver dust cover (not sure if it's original). It's a 1965 if the typewriter database is correct. It's the first typewriter I've ever fallen head over heels for.

Matthew Lusk said...

I've got two of these wonderful machines, but they both have ribbon advance issues. Does anyone have a reputable repair shop I can send these to for service? I'm in New York City, but I could ship them if it's a particularly reputable company.

Thanks, everybody!

HvM said...

Hi — I just got one, too, finally!
However, it feels as if the keys do not connect to the arms, as if the machine is in some safety mode. A few years back, you suggested the backspace key, but that doesn't work for me... Is there some other mechanism to prevent accidental key presses I forgot about?
Hope you can help!
Cheers from Amsterdam, hvm