This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
It’s unmistakable that a thoughtful designer created this beauty. The elegantly scruffed, antique-looking design stands out in the power-washed painted concrete doorway. Its brown color is rich and warm like an RCA tabletop radio. Its rounded edges inscribed in comforting proportions seemed to have been created on a perfectly graphed 2×3 modular grid that divides and organizes the layout of the unit. Small three-dimensional frames sit with last names alongside discreet red and green buttons that cue the mini speakers. With a block-lettered display of “158” adorning the top, it appears to be an industrial work of art.
You can see this intercom from a distance as you approach 158 West 29th Street, one of many early 20th-century buildings in Chelsea. If you were to encounter it yourself en route to meeting someone in the building, you would go up to it and scan the registry of twelve names for the person you came to see, running a finger down the 3-dimensional frames that appear to reach out to you. If you didn’t see the name, you’d hope with trepidation to choose the right unit number instead. Then would come the loud buzz and the quick “Who is it?”-“It’s me” exchange. The person upstairs would remotely release the door lock, the first of multiple levels of privacy they expect as residents: front door, vestibule, inner door, lobby, and ultimately their apartment door itself. You enter the building and the ritual is complete.
In 1968, by requirement of the New York Multiple Dwelling Law – MDW § 50-a, every Class A multiple dwelling erected or converted after January 1st of that year had to be equipped with a voice communication system alongside a self-locking door. By the 1970s, the institutionalized building appendage, the intercom, quickly turned into a mass-manufactured commodity of cold drab steel intended to fit all iterations of multi-unit buildings, and consequently became worthy of little notice. With removable paper names to be slid in and out of place, after decades of neglect, it’s anyone’s guess who lives there now. With so many duplicates, it’s a wonder a rare intercom like “158” can be found.
On my way to 29th Street, I spot so many of the 21st-century bright silver, mass-produced intercoms. With their sleek cylindrical-domed video cameras, residents can screen visitors as they approach their destination, giving guests the uncanny feeling of being watched. Numbers are entered in place of names on a 12-key pad to identify residents with minimal interaction required, dehumanizing the ritual.
Making a front door welcoming is a challenge for any designer and a key criterion for making a building worthy of appreciation. All the first cues of “what’s good about the building I am about to enter” happen within moments of my arrival. The genuinely unique “158” intercom assures me that I am at the right place and encourages me to pay close attention to what more the building has in store once I step inside.