Monday, June 20, 2011

Typewriter heaven

The shops inside the colonnade surrounding St Mark's Square in Venice are a bit of a nightmare. The odd long-established cafe shoulder to shoulder with cluttered stores selling jewellery, sunglasses, traditional Venetian masks, striped outfits for wanna-be gondoliers. Then, when you least expect it, there is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century architecture, the Olivetti typewriter showroom designed by Carlo Scarpa.

This immaculately restored showroom is dedicated to the great mid-century days of Italian design. The era when typewriters were sophisticated and even a little romantic, and when an industrial heavyweight like Olivetti considered it worthwhile to commission the demanding and brilliant Carlo Scarpa to create the right environment for its star products. 

It is one of those rare modern environments where a fountain makes sense. It also has a staircase reputed to be 'the most beautiful staircase of the twentieth century' that takes you upstairs where every detail, from the sloping marble floors to the windows opening out onto the colonnade, to the marble door taking you to the lane outside add up to a miracle of scale, symmetry and craft.

Fortunately we got talking with the manager who turned out to be a trained architect and Venetian-born. When we asked him about the seductive milky tones on the walls he told us that the colour had been mixed with marble to create its distinctive sheen. During the major recent restoration determining the original colour had been a huge problem. The walls had been waxed at some stage and this had reacted horribly with smoke creating a dark yellow/ brown grime. Only black and white photographs of the original were known (although this being Venice it turned out that the original craftsman had kept colour photographs) but the restorers did have one important clue to work from. When describing this unique colour Scarpa himself nailed it. “Grey, with the spirit of purple.”