Disused phone boxes awaiting attention at Unicorn Restorations. Many will be refitted for useful new lives.

Red telephone boxes redux: rejuvenating the classic kiosk

Image credit: Eyevine

The iconic red phone box is an engineering wonder, as well as a persisting symbol of British identity, but in the age of the mobile phone what can you do with a design classic?

I am running late for an interview in central London and would normally be stressed about the time required to negotiate some endless office corridors before I can face my interviewee. In this case, however, I have no such worries, because the address in my notebook is laconic: Sicilian Avenue, Holborn, Red Phone Box.

I am about to meet Robert Kerr, CEO and co-founder of Lovefone, a small London-based start-up specialising in PC and iPhone repairs. Yet it is not about the company as such that I want to talk to him. I want to question Kerr about one of Lovefone’s workshops-cum-offices inside that iconic British landmark – a red K-type phone box.

The highly distinctive kiosk is hard to overlook: bright red and eye-catching, it stands out in the drab December crowd. Kerr, however, is not at his desk. In fact, there’s only one desk, or rather a bench, inside the phone box – now manned by technician Fouad Choaibi, expert in iPhone repairs, who explains that his boss has popped out and will be back shortly.

Lovefone repair kiosk

Image credit: Eyevine

Waiting for Kerr, I squeeze myself inside the box (Choaibi has to exit his workplace to allow me in) and look around. It is amazing how many features and facilities a tiny phone kiosk measuring less than 1 square metre can accommodate. After a quick perusal, I tick off a work bench, a chair, electric lights, heaters, tool cupboards, phone chargers, internet router, CCTV camera, a perforated screen with a magnetic tool holder at eye level...

“Don’t you feel claustrophobic here?” I ask Choaibi. “Too busy for that,” he smiles, and explains that he and his colleagues routinely repair 1,000-1,200 phones a month.

Kerr soon appears. The two of us cannot fit inside the phone box together, so we head for a nearby coffee shop.

“It all started eight years ago,” says Kerr. “I was working in phone repairs and was looking to expand, but the rents in London were prohibitive and kept rising. One day I spotted a disused phone box in the street, leased it from the owner and hired a designer to refurbish its interior.”

In Kerr’s words, it was “a design challenge”, for each red phone box is officially a Grade II listed building, so they couldn’t change anything in the carcass, the windows or the exterior. “Inside, we wanted to create an environment that wouldn’t appear too crowded, with lots of small cupboards and drawers for a clean look,” he explains.

Kerr acquired several phone boxes in different parts of London, and some local councils wanted to charge council tax for them until he found out that ‘buildings’ under 2 square metres were exempt. Eventually, however, he had to give up all the boxes but the one in Holborn, for which he now pays a rent of £10 per day.

“The business is profitable, because people are curious about the red phone boxes, and if Brexit doesn’t go ahead and Britain’s economy is more secure, I will be happy to acquire many more of them.”

More or fewer red kiosks in the streets of London struck me as perhaps the most unforeseen consequence of the never-ending Brexit dilemma.  

Phone box as defibrillator

Image credit: Eyevine

From where does this undying British curiosity for the red phone box stem? Let’s take a brief excursion into its history.

If one day while exploring London you wander into the vast churchyard of St Pancras Old Church in Camden, you are unlikely to miss the spectacular mausoleum of the wife of Sir John Soane, the famous collector of art and the architect of the Bank of England building, who designed his wife’s impressive memorial. The familiar-shaped sarcophagus is one of only two Grade I listed monuments in London (the other is Karl Marx’s tomb in the Highgate Cemetery). It looks for all the world like a telephone box, which at the time was a century away from being invented. So how come?

The answer is that Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, a trustee of the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the 1920s, used the shape of the mausoleum as the base for the K2 and subsequent cast-iron telephone kiosks (the very first telephone boxes, introduced around 1900, were made of wood, until 1921 when the standard design K1 – made of reinforced concrete and fitted with wooden doors – was produced). His unusual design won a Post Office-sponsored competition in 1924 and, from then on, Britain’s red telephone kiosks were shaped accordingly.

The red K2 phone boxes – bomb-proof and heavy (weighing over an imperial ton) – first appeared in London in 1926. Only about 1,500 of them were manufactured and, today, they are extremely hard to find.

Mass production of the K2 soon had to be discontinued as it was too expensive. Several similar designs (concrete K3s and K4s, and K5s made of steel-faced plywood) were tried, but failed to take off. In 1935, to celebrate the silver jubilee of King George V, the Post Office commissioned a new kiosk – the K6, again from Gilbert Scott. Like the K2 it was made of cast iron and painted red, but was about 25 per cent lighter. The design proved popular, especially in the provinces, and by the late 1930s there were over 20,000 K6 kiosks installed across the UK.

The glass and aluminium K7 of 1962 and K8 of 1968, just like the modernistic KX model of 1985 from the newly privatised BT, were not too successful, so the K2 and the K6 remained the most popular.

In the mid-1990s, with the advent of the mobile phone and the internet, the popularity of the phone box went down sharply. By 2015, the year the classic red kiosk was voted the greatest British design of all time, having beaten the Union Jack and the red Routemaster double-decker bus, there were fewer than 10,000 traditional red kiosks remaining. By 2018, that had dwindled even further – to under 8,000.

‘Look how well-engineered old phone kiosks are. They are parts of our landscape, our geography and our lives.’

Tony Inglis, Unicorn Restorations

Recent years, however, have seen a rather unexpected comeback of this design icon – not as phone boxes, but in a number of entirely different, at times unlikely, incarnations. What is the secret of the red phone box’s continuing appeal?

According to design critic Stephen Bayley, it is based on two factors: the eye-pleasing neo-classical proportions and an old notion of the public services companies’ “civic responsibility”, with “beauty and utility to meet that end”.

The latter point is expressed a tad more poetically, I think, by Tony Inglis, manager of Unicorn Restorations, one of the principal companies engaged in the refurbishment and preservation of red phone boxes.

“Modern payphones simply do not have the same appeal,” he says. “The old red kiosks were like policemen on our street – both comforting and familiar, like small shelters in which you knew you were safe.”

Inglis, who calls himself a heritage engineer, started his business in the early 1990s when he acquired lots of discarded phone kiosks from BT. With a true restorer’s passion, he and his team have refurbished hundreds of old red boxes, many of which ended up in private homes and in the backyards of the rich and famous. Earlier this year, his small company featured in a New York Times article, ‘The Red Phone Box, a British Icon, Stages a Comeback’.

“True quality transcends time,” he tells me. “Look how well-engineered old phone kiosks are. They are parts of our landscape, and our geography, parts of our lives...”

Unlike Inglis, Edward Ottewell, director of the Brighton-based Red Kiosk company, does not refurbish the old red boxes, but rents them out. It is from him that Kerr of Lovefone and others lease the iconic cabins.

A former flip-flop stall holder on the Brighton seafront, Ottewell came up with the idea to save the red kiosks in 2012 when he bought six to-be-recycled old boxes from BT. His company now owns 125 boxes, with 55 still available for long-term lease.

“It is up to the client what to do with the box,” says Ottewell. “We apply to the council for the change of use and, if successful, the buyers are welcome to refurbish it in any way they choose. Our kiosks have become flower shops, offices and internet cafes. There’s even one that functions as a one-person disco.”

Yes, the new uses for the red phone boxes are numerous – at times, like Kerr’s repair shop, rather traditional, at times highly unusual. Here are some examples:

The “one-person disco” kiosk, mentioned by Ottewell, can actually fit two or three (rather slim) dancers. Also known as “the world’s smallest nightclub”, the box in the town of Kingsbridge, Devon, contains a music system, a glitter ball and a set of disco lights. A dancing session costs £1, with all proceeds going to a local charity.

Phone box nightclub

Image credit: PA

Another old red box is being used as a beach shower in Leverick Bay on the British Virgin Islands. What a truly refreshing idea, just like the one behind the kiosk in the small hamlet of Cladich in Argyll which has been transformed into a mini cake shop, with an honesty box attached.

The prize for the most unusual usage, however, could probably go the phone box made into a stained-glass colour-therapy room, no less, in the Suffolk village of Mellis. The villagers didn’t have to travel far to acquire the box, using their own long-disused village kiosk.

There’s no limit to the box owners’ imaginations. Among other unorthodox transformations, we can mention a mini visitor centre in the Scottish village of Bannockburn; a mini-pub (bar-less and with the seats outside, no doubt) in Shepreth, Cambridgeshire; a small village museum in Warledy, Halifax; as well as multiple flower shops, mini cafes, mini hot houses, mini art galleries, mini libraries (one in a Cotswolds village with the peculiar name of Lower Slaughter) and emergency medical points with defibrillators.

As you can see, some prematurely discarded phone boxes are now being used to save lives.

Many of the above-mentined boxes were acquired for £1 each as part of BT’s ongoing Adopt a Kiosk Scheme. The scheme was created in 2008 to help communities, mostly rural, retain their iconic red kiosks. In exchange, the buyers agree to look after the kiosks and to use them for common benefit. Already over 5,000 telephone boxes have been similarly ‘adopted’ across the UK.

So if you fancy owning the authentic British heritage symbol, go ahead, but bear in mind: just like a cherished house pet, the kiosk is for life and not just for Christmas.

For sure, there’s plenty of life in the old box yet!

What other new uses can you think of for the old red phone boxes? Send your ideas, with drawings if appropriate, to: vvitaliev@theiet.org

 

Phone box as book exchange

Image credit: Eyevine

Red box timeline

K stands for kiosk

Forerunner - Soane mausoleum

K1 – 1921

K2  - 1926

K3 – 1929

K4, with post box – 1927

K5 – 1934

K6 – 1936

K7 – 1962

K8 - 1968

Geographical variations in colour:

Green – can be found in parts of the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man

Cream – in Kingston upon Hull, whose phone system was never absorbed by the Post Office

Yellow – located in Guernsey

Cream and yellow – can be seen in Jersey

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