For much of the 20th century, the phone booth was a steadfast and essential installation of modern life, from bustling cities to tumbleweed-strewn desert gas stations. Tippi Hedren was attacked in one in “The Birds,” Clark Kent changed into Superman in one and Bill and Ted used one to time-travel on their excellent adventure. In “The Matrix,” a phone booth was an exit portal from the digital realm.
But since then, to lay eyes upon a phone booth has been to glimpse a relic of a seemingly ancient civilization. The proliferation of mobile phones made a stationary one that you had to pay to use superfluous.
Until now, when, ironically, cellphones are leading to a revival of the booths. Or, at least, a version thereof that provides privacy for your conversations and peace and quiet for everyone else.
With the proliferation of mobile phones came the irritating, distracting sound of a one-sided conversation from your cubicle mate.
When you can hear only what one person is saying, it’s not really a dialogue. Lauren Emberson, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Cornell University, calls it a “halfalogue.” As she put it in the publication Psychological Science: “I really felt like I couldn’t do anything else when someone was on a cellphone. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t even listen to my music.”
When the shared work space club the Wing opened its first location in New York City in October 2016, the interior featured one small, windowless, reflective glass-doored room dubbed the Phone Booth. One year later, when another location of the Wing opened in the city, eight of the rooms were included in the design.
Audrey Gelman, one of the founders of the Wing, explained that the increase in phone booths came “as a direct result of member feedback.”
Each tiny space is equipped with a power outlet, shallow shelf, stool and a quaint, nonfunctional — but highly Instagrammable — retro telephone.
The booths are popping up other places, too. Five maple-sided Zenbooths (a trademarked name) were installed late last year at the headquarters of Gizmodo Media Group (GMG), the home of several websites, including Deadspin, Lifehacker, Jezebel and Splinter.
Demand is outstripping the supply. With approximately 230 employees at the GMG headquarters, the booths are frequently occupied by people looking to make a private call. The company’s facilities manager, Will Sansom, recently ordered four additional Zenbooths — including one two-seater — explaining that there has been “positively positive feedback across the board.”
Other companies that have recently added private calling booths include Volkswagen, Google, Lyft, Meetup and Capital One.
Sam Johnson, a co-founder of the California company that makes Zenbooths, said it produced “hundreds” of them a month in 2017. This year, it’s on track to quadruple that production. But he doesn’t call them phone booths. “We’re manufacturing quiet spaces and privacy,” he said.
Zenbooth is not the only free-standing office phone booth on the market. Companies like Cubicall, Nomad and TalkBox, among others, are offering solutions to the modern office’s privacy problem.
They sport some hefty price tags. Zenbooths run from $3,995 for the standard model to $15,995 for an “executive” booth. The Cubicall starts at $6,495, the lowest-priced TalkBox is $4,500 and Nomad prices start at $2,995.
But doesn’t installing a free-standing phone booth in your company’s sleek office admit some kind of failure of planning?
Yes, said Nikil Saval, the co-editor of n+1 magazine and the author of “Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.”
“There has rarely been a premium placed on privacy for American office workers,” Saval said, noting that while cubicles cut down on visual distractions, “you still have to deal with noise, and noise travels pretty easily. It’s an incredibly common problem in open office plans.”
He added: “The clearest instance of how much of a problem it is? People put on headphones all the time. Headphones have become the new walls. It’s also a signal: Don’t disturb me. Because you’re constantly surrounded by other people, and you’re cheek to jowl, just crammed in with other people.”
Saval said that people complain about their co-workers’ private phone calls for a variety of reasons running from finding them distracting — listening to a co-worker make dinner reservations — to awkward: overhearing someone argue with a significant other.
Thus, the return of the phone booth signals a gesture toward more civility. Talking on the phone for others to overhear, especially in a work environment, has become at best an etiquette issue, and at worst, what Saval calls a pollutant.
As Gelman put it, “Sometimes you just need a minute to yourself.”