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FASHION : Designers Sound Off With Trendy Phones : There's an explosion of new styles. Some are high-tech, while others aim for novelty appeal.

July 28, 1994|KATHLEEN WILLIAMS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Long ago, before Americans had reached their full potential as consumers, every household had an identical telephone. That's as hard to imagine now as everyone drinking tap water, or writing their checks on plain paper stock.

Telephones, like everything else in our culture, are now a ready means of self-expression--which need to be updated as one evolves. So why delay an upgrade of your hopelessly mundane telephone equipment, or fail to add one to the downstairs closet?

That's an exaggeration. The average home has but 2.6 telephones, which is almost exactly one phone to a person, according to the census count. But . . . are they the right phones?

Even as we write, new telephones are slithering off the drawing board ready to tempt you with their diversity. AT & T reports that new models evolve so quickly, they no longer print a brochure of them because it would be obsolete by the time the printer could deliver it. So, you can imagine your phone will be outdated in the time it takes to program your instant recall numbers.

There are, incidentally, phones that can speed-dial up to 200 numbers, should you have that many friends--or should you wish to impress a smaller number of friends with the notion that you have more.

In Ventura County, merchants say this year that most buyers want cordless phones, since newly approved frequencies have dramatically improved their reception. Several retailers said they're outselling wired phones 10 to 1.

Both types of phones tend to have a lot of complex features, which no doubt we will soon find we need. For instance, many have hands-free operation for use while whipping up breakfast, and mute capability to put a caller off-line while warning the children to stop egging each other's hair. There are also light-up dials for calling in the dark--in case of power outages or perhaps to save on expenses.

Most new phones are designed not only to perform high-tech functions, but to look high-tech while doing it. With their rows of buttons and no-nonsense gray or black matte finish, they would fit the decor of a Stealth bomber cockpit--and, indeed, they appear to have been sculpted for high speeds. This, of course, has long been a popular look in many household gadgets--even the average coffee maker appears to be about to launch into space. But more about those in another column.

For those who resist the streamline model, there are alternatives. In fact, technology has put a lot of effort into creating phones that appear not to be telephones at all, but are disguised as Mallard ducks or Big Macs.

Well, maybe there isn't actually a Big Mac phone, but someone is probably working on it--just wait. Instead of ringing, this phone could exclaim, "You deserve a break today" and a portion of the price could be diverted to a McDonalds charity.

The quacking Mallard phone does, in fact, exist, and is a dead ringer for an actual decoy, except for the handset carved out of the bird's back, which is fairly awkward to lift and replace. The quack announcing incoming calls might add zest to a stuffy office milieu.

At Radio Shack, there's a phone about the size of the palm of a hand that, closed, appears to be a clam. It is called the Seashell Fashion Phone. There is also a model that looks like a crimson Frisbee with a handset, which for some unfathomable reason is called the Tudor Fashion Phone.

But our vote for best designer phones goes to AT & T, which has produced the Harley-Davidson motorcycle model ("Vroom, vroom!") and the locomotive (chug, chug, chug, whooooo-oooo!"). Each of these takes up a lot of desk space and has inconvenient handsets--but, they're worth it.

AT has long licensed a Mickey Mouse phone, which thankfully doesn't say anything in Mickey's voice when a call comes in. It just lights up and looks kitschy a trait that has kept this rodent in the spotlight for half a century.

Another manufacturer, Recyco Inc., has come up with a Flintstone phone, probably an inevitable event, since Flintstone items have become about as hard to avoid as lawyer jokes.

The Fred Flintstone Softphone looks as much as anything like the sole of a flip flop, and it is hard to say what decor it would match. There are other Softphones available as well, all startling, including one with a whimsical ear at the earpiece and a large red mouth at the speaker.

While checking these offerings at Target in Ventura, we met Judy Young of Thousand Oaks, who was looking for a cordless phone. Her home, which houses two people, already has four or five phones--she had lost track.

Like most phone buyers this season, Young was shopping out of concern for technology, not aesthetics. She chose her first cordless model, one that looked ready for takeoff.

Purchase in hand, she made a comment that helps to explain why telephone sales figures stay healthy.

"I need it for the family room," she said, "because I can't get one with a cord long enough to go to my couch."

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