DCA jumps out of the box to reply to critics

DCA’s new design for BT phone boxes came under fierce criticism. But, as Beverley Cohen reports, DCA had to revamp a treasured icon that the public doesn’t like anyone changing

Every time a new telephone box is unveiled, the designer can be recognised by his or her gritted teeth and a chin which is kept up with steely determination.

Now it’s the turn of Warwick’s DCA Design Consultants, which is taking the flak for its new payphone for BT. This is the first time the glass boxes have been radically redesigned, although the consultancy did upgrade them ten years ago.

Seymour Powell director Dick Powell told the Financial Times last week that he thought the box was “dreadful”.

Design Council design director Sean Blair declared that the box had “taken a step back in style and arguably has fallen between two stools”.

Lord St John of Fawsley, chairman of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, recommends that “a properly funded competition attracting top designers would offer the best chance of arriving at a contemporary kiosk which will truly enhance our townscapes nationwide.”

However, Lyn Haville, the senior product manager of BT, claims: “We didn’t want to have a competition: we were perfectly happy with DCA.”

The trouble seems to be the roof colour: red. It reminds everyone of the beloved K6, which was designed in the Thirties by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

The new box was not meant to be an echo of its predecessor, but the colour has led the public to see it as a poor imitation.

“It was a high-risk project – whatever you put out there will be attacked,” says Rob Bassil, technical director at DCA. “Everyone wanted red, red, red – there was so much public pressure. Our domed roof isn’t a response to the K6: it just suited our design.”

Bassil admits that the project was “a good compromise” rather than a dream job. Haville reveals that manufacturer GKN Sankey had “a design on board” before DCA was approached.

“We couldn’t start from scratch with a new design. It was a matter of upgrading what was already there. BT had a budget of only 1000 per box and they had to remain back to back,” says Bassil.

As well as a red roof, the box has a new door and sides and an illuminated panel in its roof for improved visibility. It is costing BT 5m over the next year for the 30 000-strong roll-out, as opposed to the 250m it would have cost to reinstate the K6.

Compared with other boxes around the globe, (shown below), the new BT box does retain a lot of its character. And two other boxes are hitting the streets: Italian-owned Interphone, designed by GKN Sankey, and the New World Payphone, which has been designed by Colin Hunt at MVM Sheet Metal Fabrications.

The old red boxes may be popular but, as Bassil points out, they weren’t perfect. “Everyone sees them through rose-coloured glasses, but people did insist on sleeping and urinating in them.”

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