The Case For Designer Landline Phones

Cindy F. Cape

Long before the idea of hot dog-shaped iPhone cases, Otter Boxen, or even those swappable Nokia face plates, people were just as likely to express themselves with their landline phones. Growing up at my house in the 80s, the Slimline on the kitchen wall was hidden inside a magneto wall set from the early 1900s, the front of which swung out to reveal the modern equipment behind it. Back in my bedroom, I had the coolest phone ever, a see-through Unisonic with candy-colored guts. Down in the basement was my favorite extension, tactility-wise: a candy apple-red wall unit with dimly-lit circular push buttons that were springy and spongy and oh-so fun to dial.

Popular culture shows us that people were dreaming of cool telephone enclosures before they were even a thing. Obviously, TV secret agent Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone wasn’t plausible for the technology of that era, but it also wasn’t really feasible for aesthetic reasons. For decades, phone subscribers had to use whatever equipment Ma Bell had to offer, and you couldn’t just buy the things outright at the mall — you had to lease the hardware from her, and pay for the service.

Back when phones still belonged to Ma Bell, she eventually went from the black truncated pyramid of the 1930s desk phone to all kinds of offerings like the princess phone, the Sculptura (or doughnut phone), and the stowaway models which turned the device into either a secret stationery/stationary stash box-looking thing, or a miniature roll-top desk. This landline phone madness all started in 1954, when AT&T released the classic “500” desk phone in five glorious colors: white, beige, green, blue, and pink. But the real freedom came from a ruling in 1975 that opened the doors for all kinds of designs.

A Clear Competitor

And then there was ITT Teleconcepts. This Connecticut-based company were pioneers in the designer telephone arena, taking genuine POTS-worthy guts branded with ITT or Stromberg Carlson or GTE/Automatic Electric and enclosing them in interesting and often transparent forms. Some, like the Chromephone and the Apollo are tamer than others, with basic geometric shapes and shiny accents. Others are pretty wild, and would definitely have looked great when illuminated by say, one of those Greek goddess-imprisoning rain lamps of the same era.

ITT Teleconcepts designed many different types of custom phone, some of which were pretty far out — you might remember me talking on Hackaday Podcast #165 about a see-through periscope-shaped phone that I found on ebay. I played the watch list game and sure enough, they sent me an offer for a reduced price — to my surprise, they offered me 90% off the list price, taking the thing from $300+ to about $36. I figured it was some kind of fat-finger situation, and yes, it was a mistake on the seller’s part.

Start Your Own Collection

If you like weird phones, don’t dismay — these interesting Teleconcepts units weren’t as rare as some say they are, and they don’t all cost hundreds of dollars today. Although they have handwritten tags on the bottoms that make it seem like they were crafted one at a time by an artist, these phones were in fact mass produced. They’re out there, and they don’t always go for hundreds of dollars.

I recently found an interesting specimen myself — a phone mostly hidden inside the tummy of a teddy bear named KC Bearifone. It’s a Teleconcepts unit dated 1986. This nightmare-fuel unit features speakerphone — in fact, it may be speakerphone-only — and the bear’s eyes and mouth move in sync with the caller’s voice. Yeah. Here’s a video of KC Bearifone in glorious action.

Analog landline phones are pretty darn simple, especially compared with a modern cell phone. So what about the home gamer of decades past? Surely there were a few people out there putting phone guts into interesting enclosures, and the mind reels with the possibilities. Were you one of these people? Did you or do you have a cool old landline phone? Leave a message at the beep.

The Case for Designer Landline Phones

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