Red or not, here they come: Artists reimagine the iconic telephone booth


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The Independent Culture

They were originally painted that distinctive bold red in order to be eye-catching. In 1935, the architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott created the telephone box that we know and love, and – by 1940 – more than 15,000 had been installed around the country. Called the K6, the design was commissioned by the Post Office to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V. Royal though its patronage may be, the phone box was democratic, making technology available to everyone, on the street, at any time. It went on to become a design classic, a veritable symbol of Britain.

Today, however, we're so used to them that we almost don't notice them. And in the age of the smartphone, most of us use them rarely, if ever. But something tells me London residents, at least, are going to start noticing the K6 again soon...

To celebrate 25 years of ChildLine, the charity that provides help and advice for children, BT has launched a project called the BT ArtBox. Hundreds of artists and designers entered a competition to re-invent Gilbert Scott's creation; 85 have been given the go-ahead. All over London, fantastical, witty phone boxes will be sprouting up from 18 June, re-capturing the public's eye and promoting a good cause. The fact that there happens to be another jubilee this year just makes it feel all the more appropriate.

There are phone boxes in the shape of Big Ben, phone boxes that will sing and twitter birdsong at you. There will be padded and knitted and mirrored phone boxes; others will have monkeys and giraffes and deer bursting out of them. There will be phone boxes designed by the architect Zaha Hadid, the model Lily Cole, cartoonists Modern Toss, milliner Philip Treacy, fashion designer Julien Macdonald and TV's Timmy Mallett...

"Everybody knows the telephone box – they may or may not know its designer, its history, but it does have that iconic street history," says Sandy Nairne, k director of the National Portrait Gallery and ArtBox patron, of the project. "So I thought offering people the chance to make their own was a very neat idea."

It's neat, certainly, and extremely tempting for all sorts of creative types. Well, for most of them. Chatting to Malcolm Garrett, one of the curatorial team and the graphic designer responsible for record sleeves for bands from the Buzzcocks to Duran Duran, I ask whether anyone felt they might be trampling on an already perfect design. "I had one person who said he did not want to do it for that reason," Garrett says. "Most other people said, 'What a great starting point.'"

It's not as though Gilbert Scott even wanted them to be red in the first place – he advocated a modern, sleek silver for cities and a softer grey for rural areas. Perhaps he'd even approve of them being updated with iPad designs and plasma screens displaying Twitter messages.

Fashion designer Giles Deacon is one who used the former method: "I designed mine on my iPad," he says. "I knew thatwhen the design was blown up it would look lively. I wasn't bothered [about the original's design], although it is iconic – for me it was more about the connotations of the communications world," referring to the way he redesigned a classic on a cutting-edge device.

Such modernisation also reflects the changing ways children use ChildLine. "In those early days, 25 years ago, the phone box was for many children the only safe way they could ask for help," says the charity's founder and ArtBox patron Esther Rantzen. "Now, though, most children ring us from mobiles or contact us online." But she adds that BT is still "standing by us", with the phone box today playing a fund-raising role – on 18 July, Sotheby's will auction off the ArtBoxes at the National Portrait Gallery.

I visit a warehouse in south London where the boxes are accumulating; plain, white, ghostly things being replaced by exuberant new designs. They are made of fibreglass, rather than the cumbersome cast iron of the original, but for some, even the shape is fair game – the artist Gerry Judah has deconstructed a plain white box, then reconstructed it in ill-fitting parts, not unlike certain wobbly-looking columns at the Parthenon.

New Zealand ex-pat artist Mandii Pope, meanwhile, has turned her's into a London landmark just as popular on postcards as the red call boxes: the Big Ben tower: "I looked at the shape and wondered whether anything could combine a British icon and a phone box – and this shape just made sense."

A cause as well-respected as ChildLine is partly why this project has received such a warm response. And while the placing of the boxes – and the potential for vandalism – must have been a headache for councils and BT project managers alike, the ChildLine calling card will have helped. Although, as Garrett says, he didn't give a thought to the practicalities when choosing the designs – it was all about the ideas. "The more it made you go, 'Oh, that'd be amazing!' – that was what I was looking for. The problems of where you put it and what local difficulties there might be... we can solve that later!"

Many of the locations are still under wraps, but photographer Willie Christie knows where his will stand: outside the Vogue office in London's Hanover Square. Well, that's once it's completed its current stint in the window of Harvey Nichols, alongside "FashionBoxes" by artists and designers including Stuart Semple and Giles Deacon. It's apt because Christie's box features repeated images of the lips of Grace Coddington – former model and current creative director of American Vogue. It's a photograph taken in 1973, with the lipstick hue "tweaked" slightly from an orange shade to proper phone-box red. They're printed on vinyl and stuck on.

Photographic prints aren't the most unlikely materials used, though. Bert Gilbert is busy sewing buttons on to what look like mattresses, which will attach to the outside of a K6 to create her "Padded Cell Phone" – a reflection on how the boxes are used by children. "Childhood can be soft and cocooning but it can also be harsh and isolating," she explains.

In all their guises, nothing is going to stop this flock of funky phone booths taking over our streets. And whether it's a circus squeezed into a box or a working piece of clockwork, the project is really seeing designers thinking outside, inside and right around the box.

BT ArtBoxes, in support of ChildLine's 25th anniversary, will be on London's streets 18 June to 16 July (