Ring in privacy with the phone booth

A portable, modular phone booth by Zenbooth offers users a quiet and private spot to make calls.
A portable, modular phone booth by Zenbooth offers users a quiet and private spot to make calls.PHOTO: ZENBOOTH/INSTAGRAM

NEW YORK • A call for privacy - and sanity - in a noisy, open-plan office setting has dialled up a new use for the phone booth.

For much of the 20th century, the phone booth was an essential connection to modern life. But as mobile phone use exploded, it began to disappear.

At the same time, workplaces saw the rise of the open-floor plan. Folk all saw (and heard) a proliferation of mobile phones and, with it, the irritating, distracting sound of conversation from their colleagues.

Now, the phone booth - or at least a variation of it - is making a modest comeback.

When the women-only club and work space Wing opened its first location in Manhattan in 2016, the interior featured marble tables, pink velvet couches and one small, windowless, reflective glass-doored room dubbed the Phone Booth.

One year later, when another location of the Wing opened in SoHo, eight built-in, call rooms were included in the design.

Ms Audrey Gelman, a founder of the Wing, said the increase in phone booths came "as a direct result of member feedback".

"Each room provides members with a quiet space for private conversation," she added. Each tiny space is equipped with a power outlet, a shallow shelf, a stool and a quaint, non-functional - but highly Instagrammable - retro telephone.

One company, Zenbooth, is picking up the call to put up such amenities, with five maple-sided, portable, modular phone booths installed late last year at the 17th Street headquarters of Gizmodo Media Group (GMG), the home of websites, including Deadspin and Splinter.

But because about 230 employees work out of the GMG headquarters, the booths are frequently occupied by writers and editors looking to make a private call. The company recently ordered four additional Zenbooths, including a two-seater that acts as a meeting room.

Other businesses that have recently tapped on Zenbooths include carmaker Volkswagen, transport operator Lyft and bank holding company Capital One.

Zenbooth in Berkeley, California was started in 2016 and its products range from US$3,995 (S$5,230) for a standard one-person booth to US$15,995 for a two-person "executive" booth.

The one-person booth is a soundproof box that is about 0.9m wide and 0.86m deep, with an insulated glass door, a ventilation fan, power outlets and a skylight. It can be assembled in about an hour.

But does installing a free-standing phone booth in your company's sleek office admit to some kind of failure of planning?

Yes, says Mr Nikil Saval, co-editor of n+1 magazine and author of Cubed: A Secret History Of The Workplace.

"There has rarely been a premium placed on privacy for American office workers," he said.

He noted 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."

Thus, the return of the phone booth signals a gesture towards more civility. However small the footprint, the option for privacy is welcome.

As Ms Gelman put it: "Sometimes you just need a minute to yourself."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 17, 2018, with the headline 'Ring in privacy with the phone booth'. Subscribe