“Phone booth.” If you think of a tiny enclosed structure, coin-operated phone inside, with chewing gum and dead bugs plastered on the windows, you’re probably over 35. Or maybe you think of a place where Clark Kent rips off his glasses, shirt and tie so he can save the world, again.
But, for the Edmonton design group, Onetwosix Design, “phone booth” means something else entirely. It designs sleek isolation boxes for private conversations; the portable booths move around the office space. And these booths are appearing in offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. It just got an order to provide some for federal government offices here in Edmonton. To co-founder Nick Kazakoff, the modern booth is part of what he predicts will be a post-pandemic boom.
“I think we’re going to enter a new golden age of office design,” he says.
Kazakoff and Brendan Gallagher both studied industrial design at the University of Alberta, then went off and did their own things — Kazakoff designed cranes and other construction equipment, Gallagher designed medical equipment.
In 2015, they co-founded their own studio, in a garage off 126th Street (hence the name “Onetwosix”). Since then, they’ve been involved in a wide variety of projects: They redesigned a broom for Olson Curling (even though neither of them were curlers); they designed exteriors for MRI machines at the University of Alberta Hospital; they re-designed hot tubs for Arctic Spas; they did a custom van conversion; and worked on the interior for the second location of The Colombian.
While Kazakoff is proud that Onetwosix Design is a “pretty nimble” company, he says that between 70 and 80 per cent of the business comes from modular phone booths. If any of you are old enough to remember the cone of silence from Get Smart (or maybe the Edmonton band that was named for that gadget), it’s basically a portable booth which allows for private conversations in a busy office. Because so many offices feature so many common areas, these booths offer the opportunities for private conversations and confidential phone calls. And, the booths are light enough to move around the office.
Kazakoff says that, while the office-design market is pretty dry at the moment, he thinks there will be a major shift once the majority of us are vaccinated. Yes, there will be more working from home, and flexible office hours will be here to stay, but there will always be a need for staff to meet in person, to brainstorm and bond.
“Based on the research we’ve done and the conversations we’ve had with people, we’re optimistic, and we’re optimistic based on good information,” he says. “You’ve got the big tech companies, like Google and even Facebook, who in the past have been big promoters of the idea of ‘work from home, flexible work.’ But, in reality, they’re actually buying up tons of real estate right now in a bunch of different areas. The reason? They understand that people will return to the office space. The reason why is that the office isn’t just about productivity anymore. The office will be a place where people can gather, and can get on board with the purpose of your organization. It’s about building a company culture and community. It is very tough to find alignment, and you don’t get that collaboration or innovation, that comes with office design, elsewhere.”
What will change, Kazakoff feels, is the sense of permanence in the modern office. Bulky, fixed cabinets and shelves and desks that take four people to move will be replaced by lightweight items that are easy to move. Imagine desks that can be pushed together to create a boardroom table, or chairs that can easily be rearranged.
And that’s where the phone booths come in. Onetwosix Design has its offices and manufacturing facility in Edmonton, with 11 employees and growing. Kazakoff says the company doubled in size on a yearly basis before the COVID slowdown. But he and Gallagher recognize their decision to take charge of the manufacturing — and have it done locally — is a big departure. Design companies often do the diagram work and then end it off to far-away manufacturers. Why go the in-house route?
“It’s a bit of a different approach, especially for a design company,” says Kazakoff. “We’re pretty particular about how we go about building things. We always wanted to leverage our network here in Edmonton and provide pretty good job opportunities for people here in the city. So, we have cabinet makers we employ as well as several industrial designers. For us, it’s also really important to know what’s going into our product from a sustainability standpoint.”
There is competition in the space. Framery Acoustics, a European company, boasts that it grew from one million Euros’ worth of sales in its first year, to 60 million in its fifth year of operation. But to Onetwosix, FA’s success shows just how much potential there is for privacy booths in the office-culture renaissance.
So, don’t get too comfortable working from home yet.
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This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Edify.