Think of Ettore Sottsass and understandably most will think of his wild and wacky post modern designs of the early 1980s. As the driving force behind the Memphis Milano group who sought to parody and bring into question the self-assurance of Modernism, Sottsass was indeed an offbeat genius. But his career as a commercial designer started many years earlier and just like his contemporaries he too had been dedicated to the functionality of modern design.
In 1959 the 42 year old Sottsass was approached by the office company Olivetti and asked to design for them. His first work was on the Olivetti Elea 9003, an early mainframe computer. This was followed by a series of (now iconic) typewriters during the 1960s. While Sottsass was interested in efficient machine design, he knew that was only part of the picture.
Efficient office management through design had always been a popular field of study even from the late 19th century, but the focus was more on the practical positioning of existing pieces rather than redesigning the objects themselves. When Sottsass suggested his idea for a fully integrated office range to Olivetti it was to become a pioneering project.
Synthesis 45 Range
Released in 1973 as the Synthesis 45 range (a reference to the 45cm base measurements used) the pieces and concept became an instant success. By deconstructing the tasks and tools of the office and redesigning each component to give it the space and ease of use it needed, the effect was a fully adjustable office environment that could be adapted to fit in any room. Importantly the desks were designed to accommodate early computers, typewriters and printers. Adjustable side tables and underside drawers could be easily swapped from left to right for the users preference, paper trays were raised and mounted on swivel joints to allow them to be angled for efficiency of use and smaller items such as pen trays were redesigned to interlink with one another as desired.
Looking back on the promotional images now it is easy to overlook how radical this all was in the early 1970s. The minimalist designs in plastic, steel and laminate look to our 21st century eye like every other late 20th century office around the world, and therein lays its importance. The Synthesis 45 concept was so successful an idea that it was quickly taken up by many other office furniture manufacturers since. Perhaps more important to its commercial success than its efficient but querky design was the fact that the desks were one of the first to actively accommodate the very machinery of business, and in particular computers. As office and home computers began to fully burst onto the scene in the late 1970s to early 1980s the Synthesis desks were already designed to accommodate them.
Finally, the success of any industrial product must be down to its practical use. This Synthesis 45 desk set which I have offered for sale was all purchased brand new by the previous owner during the 1980s and was in continued use in their busy office until just a few weeks ago. That a set of office furniture can withstand 30 years of everyday business use in excellent condition, and then be fondly missed by its owner once sold says more about the success of Sottsass’ vision than any review ever can!