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The typewriter that made me a writer

Deyan Sudjic: the typewriter that made me a writer

The director of London’s Design Museum on the objects that mean a lot to him

The director of London’s Design Museum on the objects that mean a lot to him

April/May 2019

The Valentine typewriter by Ettore Sottsass made me a writer
In the early 1980s, through a combination of incompetence and impatience, I gave up trying to be an architect and became a journalist instead. I wrote on a typewriter, typically a rather utilitarian piece of equipment. But the Valentine by Ettore Sottsass was different: it made me realise that emotions were functional aspects of objects. It was available in a variety of colours, but the red version was the best known. Sottsass used to describe the Valentine as something “to keep poets company on lonely weekends in the country”. More than a designer, he was a teller of stories. Later I told his: having met him in Milan in 1981, I got to know him well and ended up writing his biography.

The ET 66 calculator by Dieter Rams showed me how form and function could combine
Early in my career as a journalist, the Sunday Times sent me to interview Dieter Rams, a German designer who at that time was working for Braun, a German electronics company. “It means Brown and it’s pronounced Brown!” he said, but everything in his studio was either black or white, except for the orange pack of cigarettes he held in his hand. Rams has the moral certainty of the true believer. Good design for him has nothing to do with persuading us to buy things that we don’t really need, it’s about making the world a better place. The matt black ET 66 calculator, designed with his collaborator Dietrich Lubs, had glossy buttons like Smarties and came in a black protective wallet, like a cigar case. Such was its elegant simplicity that when Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer, was working on the calculator interface for the first iPhone, he made it look like Rams’s.

The Macintosh computer transformed my life
When I wrote on a typewriter, making each page perfect meant typing and retyping until your hands were raw. Then along came the first Macintosh computer and my life was transformed. Even though it was a strange object in a hideous beige colour, as a technological development it was amazing. Suddenly you could perfect your prose by moving chunks of text around. When I founded a magazine called Blueprint in 1983, we replaced the cow gum and strips of paper which had long been used to design layouts with desktop publishing software. The Mac gave me a new sense of possibility.

The flower vase by Shiro Kuramata symbolises my love of Japan
Once upon a time, if you wanted to find out where the world was going you went to Tokyo. At first glance it seemed cluttered and disorganised – a huge, formless sprawl. But then it came into focus and I saw that it was full of small things done remarkably well, starting with the three people who bowed to the back of the bus as you left the airport. No designer represents that tradition of Japanese perfectionism better than Shiro Kuramata. Born in 1934, he became part of a remarkable group of designers dedicated to making small, flawless objects. He was known for his use of transparent materials, and this flower vase, created in 1989, is a case in point. It is made of acrylic, and the tubes which hold the flowers almost look like they are floating in a block of water.

Carafe by Lotte de Raadt epitomises what design can achieve
When I became director of the Design Museum in London I started our Designs of the Year competition. Last year one of the objects included was a carafe designed by Lotte de Raadt. It’s terracotta, self-cooling and is intended to encourage people to ditch mineral water sold in plastic bottles in favour of tap water. It’s a beautiful, tactile object, and proves that an environmental purpose does not have to mean a hair shirt.

Working at the desk that Gio Ponti designed was a highlight of my career
Gio Ponti was the most gifted and multi-talented Italian architect of his generation, responsible for Milan’s Pirelli tower, completed in 1958, and a brilliant designer of everything from cutlery to glass. He also founded Domus, the most influential design magazine of the 20th century. Its mix of all forms of visual culture with architecture and design was the inspiration for Blueprint. Getting the chance to edit Domus myself for four years, from 2000, was like getting the keys to a vintage Bugatti, not least because I got to work at the desk that Ponti had designed for himself – a commanding maplewood affair with ingenious glass topped compartments to accommodate a telephone, and little brass socks protecting its splayed legs.

As told to Simon Willis