The Red Phone Box Rings Up 75 Years

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Britain’s renowned red telephone box, also known as the K6, celebrates its 75th birthday this year. To mark its anniversary BT has donated a K6 kiosk to the Design Museum for their permanent Collection and the box will feature in their new exhibition, “This is Design”, which opens on August 24, 2011. The exhibition celebrates and features highlights from the Collection including the Anglepoise lamp, UK road signs, UK traffic lights, the candlestick telephone and the Moulton bicycle.

Now a twentieth century design icon and as famous throughout the world as the red double-decker bus and the red post-box, the red telephone box in its heyday was a beacon of comfort and a lifesaver for those who had no home telephone.

The K6 phone box was introduced in 1936 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the coronation of King George V. The “Jubilee Kiosk”, as it became known, was designed by English architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) and was similar, but smaller than its predecessor the K2, also designed by Sir Giles. The older K2 had not featured outside London, but the “Jubilee” model became the first genuinely standard telephone box to be installed all over the country. Sir Giles was also responsible for designing Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, Battersea Power Station and Bankside Power Station, now home to contemporary art gallery Tate Modern.

On their introduction, Kiosk no. 6’s were given to every town or village with a post office, regardless of cost. As a result, more than 8,000 new boxes were installed in 1936 and by the end of production in 1968 there were nearly 70,000 in Britain. Many areas did not approve of the red colour and so were allowed to paint them in alternative colours. Most of them have now been repainted red, but a few survive in dark green and grey.

David Hay, head of BT Heritage, said: “The red telephone box is part of the British way of life. The older generation grew up using them and everyone in this country instantly recognises them. The K6 kiosk is held in great esteem and is an ambassador for the UK around the world, as many are now found in countries, as diverse, for example, as the US, Cuba, Brazil, Switzerland, Hungary and Germany. It seems only fitting to mark its 75th birthday in some way.”

Recently BT has been selling decommissioned red phone boxes to local communities for just a £1 under its Adopt a Kiosk scheme, enabling villages across the land to preserve part of their’s and Britain’s Heritage. The scheme has captured the imagination of people up and down the country and more than 1,500 kiosks have already been adopted. Boxes have been fitted with life saving defibrillation machines, turned into art galleries, public libraries, exhibitions and information centres. One village even turned theirs into a one-night-only pub.

John Lumb, general manager for BT Payphones, said: “The success of the Adopt a Kiosk scheme has shown the huge amount of affection communities throughout the UK have for the red phone box. We’re very pleased to donate one to the Design Museum – we don’t know why we haven’t done it before!”

Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum, said: “The K6 kiosk is an unmistakable example of classic British design which is recognised around the world, the Design Museum is delighted to have this as part of its collection”

The popular design of the K6 survived the introduction of K7’s and K8’s in the 1960’s, but during the 1980’s and early 1990’s they were frequently replaced with the modern KX series of payphone booths. Thousands of old K6s were sold off at public auctions. However, the Department of the Environment and English Heritage worked with BT to identify kiosks worthy of listing as being of special architectural and historical interest, mainly near existing listed buildings or in attractive town and country locations.

By the 1990s, BT’s approach had almost gone full circle due to the popularity of the design and instead of replacing them, the policy changed to retain the kiosks in certain heritage sites. In 1999 there were more 15,000 of these old style kiosks and the K6 was by now a registered design of British Telecommunications plc.

There are now 11,000 traditional red phone boxes across the UK out of a total number of 51,500 kiosks. As payphone use keeps falling – calls have dropped by more than 80 per cent in the last five years and 64 per cent of phone boxes lose money – the numbers of red and modern kiosks are set to continue to shrink, as BT cuts their numbers to match demand. BT has recently written to parish councils across the UK inviting them to adopt their local kiosk and safeguard it from removal