When an iconic red phone box due to be offered at auction sold before bidding started at £15,000 last month, it reminded me of how seemingly mundane items can take on a new life when their original purpose has been fulfilled.
In this case the phone box had been a feature of the streetscape for decades close to Lincoln Cathedral. The price achieved was a full £9,000 above the anticipated auction estimate.
So why do such things make this sort of money? In short, design and nostalgia, twin qualities that can turn what has been a workaday object into folk art.
Think about it: the cliché views of London in Hollywood films have always been the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, Bobbies on the beat, Beafeaters, Buckingham Palace, London taxis, red pillar boxes and the old red phones boxes – all classic images of supposedly more innocent and better days gone by.
The unique design of the phone box was the brainchild of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960), a well-known architect whose two most celebrated buildings were Battersea Power Station and Livepool Cathedral. He was also the grandson of Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-78), who designed both the Albert Memorial and, most famously, St Pancras Station.
Taking care with design so that it appeals to our aesthetic sense as well as being supremely fitted for its function gives objects the sort of longevity that less well thought out things lack.
In turn, this transition from functional object to folk art brings new life to things long past their sell-by date and creates whole new collecting fields such as street furniture, which can encompass everything from road signs and phone boxes to the long redundant fire stamps issued to clients by insurance companies. It’s a good lesson that good design is not simply a luxury.