Seeing red in London

The Design Museum in London has added the red telephone box to its collection of classics. The phone box, designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.The famous red box (known as K2) was introduced in 1936 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of King George V’s coronation. It became known as the “Jubilee Kiosk” and was the first standard telephone box to be installed across the country. The red box was not, however, the first of its kind. The first standard public telephone kiosk introduced by the United Kingdom Post Office was produced in concrete in 1920 and was designated K1 (Kiosk No.1). This design was not of the same family as the familiar red telephone boxes and very few examples remain. One is located in Trinity market in Kingston-upon-Hull where it is still in use.

The red telephone box was the result of a competition in 1924 to design a kiosk that would be acceptable to the London Metropolitan Boroughs which had hitherto resisted the Post Office’s effort to erect K1 kiosks on their streets. The Post Office chose to make Scott’s winning design in cast iron (Scott had suggested mild steel) and to paint it red (Scott had suggested silver, with a “greeny-blue” interior) and, with other minor changes of detail, it was brought into service as Kiosk No.2 or K2. From 1936 onwards K2 was deployed in and around London and K1 continued to be erected elsewhere.

In 2009, when the mobile library stopped visiting, it was a blow for the villagers of Westbury-sub-Mendip in Somerset, England. And when they found out they could also lose their beloved red phone box, there was something of an outcry. However, one local resident hatched a cunning plan to tackle both difficulties. Why not buy the phone box and use it to set up a mini-library. So, for £1 the parish council bought the box, a Giles Gilbert Scott K6 design, and screwed four shelves into place. A local business donated a sign and a wag added a “Silence please” notice. Residents donated books to get the project going and it became an instant hit. Red telephone booths have been adapted into shower cubicles, outside toilets, and art installations. Not necessarily in that order.

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