The charm of vintage rotary telephone designs

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Petra Bjelica
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Vintage telephone designs

In the era of iPhones and Android vintage, rotary telephones can very rarely be seen in homes and apartments. It might even be possible that some of us hadn’t a chance to even use one.

They once were seen as tokens of modernity, technology, and progress. Today they bring back to life the old school style and the charms of long and pleasant conversations.

Since the very beginnings, a lot of effort has been put into the design of the telephones and they were seen as an important part of the home decor. Some of the vintage models have more class and appeal to them than is remembered.

Telephone model 102 designed by Henry Dreyfus, Author: Daderot, CC-Zero

One of the first major companies to produce phones was Western Electric whose biggest innovation was the A1 model made in 1925. It consisted of a round base, an aluminum-alloy cradle and plunger, voice transmitter and an ear piece and was produced in black color only. During the 1930s the rotary dial became commonplace. The first model that was widely manufactured and distributed that wasn’t a candlestick style was the 102 Western Electric model. But it had a serious user face flaw – many customers could hear the voice too loudly so it was soon upgraded to the 202 desktop model. This was the longest lasting telephone design in the first part of the 20th century. It was made out of two distinct parts, the hand set and a carbon granule transmitter with an electromagnetic receiver in the desk set box, which also housed the ringer and the connection to the telephone network.

The 302 model, Author: ProhibitOnions, PD-user

The 202 was followed by the 302 model, designed by Henry Dreyfuss’s industrial firm. The Western Electric 302 was highly influenced by Ericsson’s DHB 1001 model invented by Jean Heiberg. This model was popularly called the Lucy phone because it appeared at the TV show “I love Lucy”. After World War II, due to metal shortages, the company switched to thermoplastic bodies in various colors. In the UK the black 332 Bakelite Telephone was produced. This model regained its popularity after being used in the Matrix movies.

Model 5302, Author: ProhibitOnions, PD-user

But the most successful Western Electric model was the 500 series from when the whole industry rapidly developed. This sleek series was the first to contain a coiled handset cord that was adapted from airplane cockpits. It had some improvement as controlling the volume of the ringer and came in various colors. It became the most prominent and popular American telephone and was in use for more than 30 years with a lot of different design variations. One of the famous attempts to satisfy a specific market group of teenagers was The Princess phone that was made in 12 different colors.

Ericsson Dialog rotary dial telephone, made in 1966 by Ericsson for Televerket, Author: Holger.Ellgaard, PD-self

The rotary mechanism was around until 1963 when a new technology of push buttons was invented. It also created a lot of different possibilities for phone designs. In 1965 Bell introduced a completely new model named Trimline. It was made both in a desk variation and as the wall mount and had push buttons or a rotary dial.

Ericofon, Author: Holger.Ellgaard, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The fashion trends in the 1960s had an impact on the imagination of telephone designers as well. One of the most interesting designs from that period is the Ericsson’s cobra phone, or the Ericofon famous for its special shape with the rotary dial on the bottom side and vibrant colors. Siemens made the first flip-flop phone in 1966. It was called The Grillo Telephone and was designed by Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper.

Western Electric Sculptura, Author: Rama, CC-BY-SA-2.0-FR

A famous American phone that was commonly seen during the 1970s was the Genie which had a tone dial with push buttons but was designed in the manner of old rotary phones. During the 70s and the 80s, available were the Telstar or the Western Electric Sculptura. And if you are interested in even more creative uses of vintage phones and you happen to be visiting Frankfurt, visit the Museum of Telecommunication and check out Jean-Luc Cornec’s sheep sculptures made of rotary telephones –  it will most definitely change your way of perceiving the history of the design of old telephones.