Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Classic design: Ericofon

In March, MoDiP was invited by the BPF to provide a short series of webinars about classic design inspired by objects in the MoDiP collection.

The object or objects that have inspired the third talk was the Ericofon telephone. With its distinctive shape, hidden dial and cut off button underneath the device.

Ericsson was originally established by Lars Magnus Ericsson. He started off working for a company that made telegraph equipment. Opening his first telegraph repair shop in 1876, then selling his own telephone equipment in 1878. After expanding the company worldwide Lars Ericsson stepped down in 1901. Click on the iimages throughout this post to enlarge them.

Ericsson created the first Bakelite, phenol formaldehyde, telephone, the DBH1001 which was introduced in 1931 the design is attributed to the Norwegian artist Jean Heiberg. This was followed by a redesign in 1947 by Gerard Kiljan.

The move away from other materials to plastics – with Bakelite being the vanguard – was revolutionary for the industry – it is suggested that the time it took to make a telephone case was reduced from one week to seven minutes by changing over to compression moulded phenol formaldehyde.

Although the American company Automatic Electric had made a phenol formaldehyde telephone in 1925 – it still had a metal cradle for the handset. This Ericsson phone was the first phone to be made completely out of Bakelite with the cradle being integral to the body. This wonderful material, as we saw last week with the A22 radio, could be formed into attractive curved shapes. It was also more hygienic than metals and woods that had been used before – because it would not absorb moisture and could be easily cleaned.

There are two other phones that Ericsson are particularly known for: The Dialog and the Ericofon.

Below is the Dialog which looks very similar to the GPO phones that many of us are probably familiar with.

This phone was released in 1964, having been designed by the Swedish Architecture and design company AOS and millions were sold from then until the 1990s. Apparently, the King of Sweden was presented with a handmade version for his 40th birthday in 1986.

A push button version was introduced in 1972 but was not as popular as the rotary dial version. The usual design processes were utilised – to make sure the receiver fitted the average face, and ensure that the handset was not too heavy to hold for too long. But I think the most interesting design element that I hadn’t come across before was to make sure that there was enough light entering the case, if it were too dark inside it might be a cosy place for insects to inhabit.

Moving on to the Ericofon…

It has its origins in the candlestick telephone which was in common use from the 1890s through to the 1940s which was made of a number of different materials including wood, brass, and phenol formaldehyde.

The candlestick obviously had an influence on Siemens ‘Crouching dog’ model 29 telephone from 1929. This device was not mass produced with only 500 being made. It has a small foot print but is relatively tall leading to it falling over at lot during testing. However, what interested the Ericsson team was the fact that the earpiece, speaker, and dial are all in the same unit.

Ericsson’s technical director, Hugo Blomberg was particularly taken by their competitor’s device. He worked with designer Ralph Lysell to produce their own version. Many clay models were created by Lysell during the design process. The main goal, like we saw with the Panton chair in our first talk, was to create a telephone case in a single piece. Other companies had tried to achieve this but had not managed to complete their projects. The physical visualisation of the device made it easier to persuade Ericsson to persevere. Producing a product in as few pieces as possible means that there is less finishing required. There is no need to fix multiple pieces together and there are less edges to finesse making for a quicker process.

Two models were selected for further development. However, parallel projects, and the outbreak of the second world war which caused restrictions on resources, meant that work was halted until the late 1940s. At this point, Gösta Thames was brought in to lead the project, he had been successful in designing a loudspeaker phone which had all the components in a single unit. This product was large, so to create a small, lightweight, table or desk top device the componentry needed to be shrunk.

The timeline below shows the history of the device which had initially been called the Erifon by the team working on the project – this name brought together the first three letters of the company and the Greek word for sound. When the team came to register the name, they found that it was already used for a fire-proofing product for textiles. This meant they had to find a new name so they simply added the abbreviation for company in the centre to make it Ericofon. The Swedish public christened it the Cobra phone due to its shape. It was the first Swedish phone to be given a name rather than a code of letters and numbers. This of course helps to make it memorable for the general public.

Although the initial intention was to create a single piece phone case the original consumer product was actually moulded in two mirror halves that were then glued together. The cases were then polished by workers to make sure then glue seam was less visible.

The original design can be seen on the left-hand side of the top left image, and has since become known as the ‘old case’. The early 1960s saw a subtle redesign, known as ‘new case’. This new case was single piece although still has a central seam. This seam is caused by the two-part mould rather than a glue seam. In an interview with Gosta Thames he suggested that this came about because the case could now be ‘spray-moulded’ in a single piece – and I wondered if this is a correct statement – I think that spray-moulding is more associated with composite materials. Perhaps this has been translated incorrectly for injection moulding – if anyone has any insight please do get in touch so that we can make sure we have our cataloguing of our objects correct.

The flat earpiece was not redesigned straight away. It was later made wedge shaped as the steeper angle meant that the user held the phone too close to their face.

Gosta Thames stated that his starting point in choosing a shape was always that the phone had to be easy to hold. It should be light and feel comfortable in the hand. You had to be able to feel how to hold it even in the dark.

For me, the intended grip shown in the right-hand image is really interesting. You can see that it makes perfect sense because the main weight will be in the base but I don’t think it is an intuitive way of picking up a telephone – I think it would be more natural to hold the phone like you would a ‘normal’ phone receiver.

The exciting thing about the phone was not just the dial being in the base and the ease of answering by simply lifting the device, but the colours that were available. In the American market there were 18 colours available and they were not just red, blue and grey. They were exotic colourways such as golden glow, Nordic blue, Sahara, dusty rose, chartreuse, accent green, princess pink, mandarin red, Aqua mist, Riviera, Sandal wood, Royal dubonnet, charcoal, crystal mint, Persian grey, wedgewood, candle glow, and taj mahal. These fabulous colours were achievable because of a new material which was released in 1954. Other materials were considered including acrylic, cellulosics and even phenol formaldehyde. Once Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene became available it became clear that it was the material of choice for this device and most phones that have followed due to its rigidity, resistance to impact, and durability. Most significantly it had the ability to take colour well, with an opaque and glossy surface.

I really like the image below as it shows some of Ericsson’s phones from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Ericofon looks outstanding in amongst their other pieces more conventional looking products.

The Wikipedia page lists the media appearances made by the classic design – it is really interesting to see the variety of programmes and films and the longevity of the design.
The next two images show some of the other phones in the MoDiP collection.

Wild and Wolf produced a number of classic telephone design reissues in the 2010s. For a number of reasons including changing componentry means that the reproductions don’t feel the same as the originals – the trimphone for example shown in the top right does not hang as satisfactorily as the original when it is picked up from the handset cradle.

Interestingly, the Wild and Wolf devise is not known as the Ericofon but as the Scandi phone – perhaps they didn’t get the permissions they expected.

Louise Dennis, Curator of MoDiP

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