29 March 2015

Best British design ever?

I’m not sure everyone would agree with this choice, particularly as the survey only included 2000 of Britain’s estimated 64.1 million people, but last week the instigators of the Samsung Galaxy S6 Great British Design Study announced that the classic red telephone box had been chosen as the Best British Design ever.

At Port Sunlight

Professor Catherine McDermott, a design expert and Director of the Curating Contemporary Design Research Group at Kingston University, was commissioned by Samsung to conduct the study as a way of celebrating the launch of their latest smartphone. McDermott and a panel of judges created a longlist which the select 2000 then voted upon.

The first British telephone box (the K1) was a concrete construction, built in 1920, but the vibrant red phone box the Brits know and love resulted from a series of design competitions held in 1923-24. The winning design, officially known as the K2 (K for kiosk), was the brainchild of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, architect of such diverse structures as Liverpool Cathedral, the Battersea Power Station and Waterloo Bridge, though Scott had intended his phone box to be painted silver. The iconic vibrant red, officially known as ‘currant red’, was chosen instead, to make the boxes easy to spot.

Phone boxes at Arley, at Knutsford (decorated for Christmas 2014) and at Pickmere
Over the years, the phone box design morphed from the K2 (made in cast iron) to a K3 (also designed by Scott but built of concrete) to a K4 (an unsuccessful attempt to add a postage stamp dispenser on the outside – the noise disrupted phone calls and the stamps got damp) to a K5 (a plywood model for exhibition use only) to the K6 (designed in 1935 to commemorate the silver jubilee of George V and mass produced). In 1940 there were 35,000 K6s in Britain. By 1980, there were 73,000!

The book exchange at Great Budworth

From 1926 onwards, the fascias of the kiosks were emblazoned with a prominent crown, representing the British government. From 1935 to 1952 the Tudor Crown was used, the emblem of King George V’s Silver Jubilee, then from 1952 onwards, the emblem changed to St Edward’s Crown, the actual crown used at Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. In Scotland, from 1955, the Crown of Scotland was used.

Initially, all the crowns were painted the same red as the boxes themselves but, from the early 1990s, the crowns have been highlighted with gold paint.

With the advent and subsequent popularity of mobile phones the old red telephone boxes are fast disappearing, though in some places they are also being repurposed. The one I found in the little Cheshire village of Great Budworth is now a tiny community book exchange and other alternate uses include a miniature art gallery in Settle, Yorkshire, the world’s smallest pub at Shepreth in Cambridgeshire, and a place to house a defibrillator in the village of Glendaruel in Argyll. For the bargain price of £2250 (excluding delivery), you can buy a K6 phone box and create your very own library or art gallery or bar or …

At Plumley
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about the rest of that Best British Design list, here are the top 25:

1. Red Phone Box (K Series)
2. Routemaster Double Decker Bus
3. Union Jack
4. Spitfire
5. Rolls Royce
6. London Taxi
7. Tube Map
8. Mini Cooper
9. Concorde
10. Red Pillar Box
11. Jaguar E-Type
12. Aston Martin DB5
13. Miniskirt
14. London Eye
15. Double Helix DNA structure
16. Wembley Stadium
17. First Class Postage Stamp
18. Dr Martens
19. Angel of the North
20. Wellington Boots
21. London 2012 Olympic Torch
22. Tartan Print
23. Burberry Trench Coat
24. Saville Row Suit
25. Fred Perry Polo Shirt