We Spoke To A Girl Who Used To Design Phonebox Call Cards

"I'd just graduated from uni with a BA in design, then I met a French pimp... "
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Last year, I began collecting the escort call-cards that littered the Marylebone phoneboxes for some reason. 50 or so later, I had to decide what to do with them, because it was getting weird/borderline perverse. I settled on getting a hideous t-shirt garishly adorned with the bright and colourful images of chicks with stars on their nipples sublimation-printed in America. I would love to know what the staff at JakPrints’ response was upon opening my artwork PDF.

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As an art/design grad, I was attracted to them at first because of the bright colours, bold type and hilarious comic-erotic copywriting*


They too made for some interesting drunk phone calls, but that’s a different story. As is one about the time we got kidnapped by Romanian bouncers in a Soho strip club..

I studied what they had deliciously named “Creative Advertising” at my university, so we looked at a lot of ads. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that these A5 pieces of colourful card were also ads... for bodies. I found them both enchanting and terrifying. After seeing enough of these cards I began to notice a lot of recurring themes - certain words and phrases, even fonts and Pantones... who was designing these things?! It had to be the same person right?!

So when someone I worked with mentioned in conversation that she had once upon a time worked with a designer who had moonlighted making callcards for London escorts, I couldn’t resist hunting her down and asking her some questions. Enter, Pia, now a senior art director at a famous ad agency:

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Sabotage Times: Hello Pia, so I am imagining you in a dimly-lit, smoky room, cigarette in hand, hunched over a cracked version of Photoshop on a beaten-up old MacBook, carefully cutting out faded Polaroids of women with the Lasso tool - how far is that from the truth exactly?

Pia: Hmm, quite far sadly.. Your version sounds a lot more exciting! In 2003 I was working in a print shop in the centre of Soho- the ones where you would’ve popped in to get your copying done. (I can’t mention the name for legal reasons obviously...) I’d graduated from Brighton with a BA in Graphic Design and desperately needed a job as I’d just moved to London.

It was a brilliant job for many different reasons. On a geek’s level I learnt loads about print and became very obsessed with paper stocks, colours, print techniques etc. Whilst learning this I got to do all the printing, and also a lot of design work for masses of Soho-based companies, from fashion brands, media agencies, restaurants, right through to the pimps of Soho!

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ST: Brilliant. So how would the “clients” approach the shop exactly? And I can’t imagine what you would have to put on their invoices.

P: My first encounter with a pimp completely threw me as you can imagine. My boss called me to the front of the shop as he said there was someone who was wanting to book some design time with me. So as I walked to front of the shop I saw what seemed to be a very well turned out, pretty good looking and respectable man. His name I can’t say, but it was French, and as with most French accents it sounded quite sexy.

I asked him what it was he wanted designed and he pulled out a postcard, and asked me if I could do “something a little like this?” I remember just staring at it pretty vacantly as I took in what it was. I thought I could see boobs and phone numbers but I wasn’t sure as I was so taken aback! I remember seeing the words “A and O levels”. I was so flummoxed by the whole situation that was unfolding that I just said “Yes, no problem” I then proceeded to ask what A+O levels were! I’m the idiot girl that asked a pimp that question! He just looked at me and said, “Anal and Oral” I’m pretty sure I must have been scarlet red by that point! We talked for about another 30 minutes about the sort of designs he wanted. He ran an upmarket escort agency in Mayfair, so he wanted it to be classy. He came across as very charming and we discussed it as I would a brief with any other client.

He went on to become a very regular customer of mine and I actually did many different cards, leaflets, adverts for magazines and other bits of design work he needed. There was no invoices either - all cash. He would sometimes pull up outside the shop in a blacked-out, flashy car (I’ve no idea which, but it looked very expensive) and he often had 2 massive guys with him. Maybe his body guards? I’ve no idea.

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ST: The main thing I am interested in is the process of the designs - would the client supply images and/or ideas of what they want? I am pretty sure I have one that includes an image of Emily Ratajkowski before she did the Blurred Lines video (I suppose it could explain how Robin Thicke could have found her…)

P: This also intrigued me as a designer. So after I’d said yes to the job, he proceeded to tell me he has an account with Met Art - a website of “artistic” photos of women... He liked them so I signed up and used those images as a starting point for my designs. I was trawling through all these photos of naked women looking at them in a completely different light, not in a seedy way but in through designer’s eyes. I was told I had to cover their nipples and noonies with stars. I also wanted to make typography wrap around the women, or choose ones which I thought I could make a design statement with. So I mocked up a load of designs which I was really pleased with, and showed them to - let’s call him - Mr French. He didn’t like them. They were too “designed” - not smutty enough. Not right for his target market!

He wanted them to look “more eye-catching, more neon.” So we sat down and trawled through Met Art together.

I would say…”what about this girl?”
“No, I don’t like her tits”
“But I can put all the type here?”
“I don’t like her tits. Do you like her tits?”
“Errrr yes, they’d look great with some type around them!”

That was pretty much how our conversations panned out for the next year! It was really funny, completely surreal but intriguing and a laugh all at the same time.

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ST: Were they always shady French guys? Did the girls come in themselves or was it, let’s say.. an “agent” that would do the work on behalf of them?

P: Always an agent. So, as well as Mr French there was several others that used the shop. It went from the top end of Mr French, who got bespoke designs done by me every time, right down to the creepiest scumbags that would scuttle through the door with a scrunched up bit of paper that they’d pull out of their stinky pocket! The “Model Upstairs” sort of thing... They wanted photocopies onto neon cards, and things like that. Luckily I didn’t have to deal with them so much, the guys that did the photocopying did!

ST: A lot of them specify “genuine picture” or “real photo” - was there much Photoshopping to do to fill out the blank space with as much thigh as possible?

P: Not really. Basically just adding stars to the exposed bits! Quite simple really when you’ve got the star tool in Illustrator! Like I said, I tried several designs that were far more “designed”, nice type, colours etc but they were discarded by Mr French. And, nothing is genuine. I guess when these girls pose for Met Art it must be written in the small print somewhere that they could potentially end up in the phone boxes of Soho. Sad really.

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ST: You must have some funny stories of Illustrator nip-slips, or times when the clients were too coked-up to make any sense? Clients can be very unpredictable at the best of times…

Every time I tried to get hold of Mr French I couldn’t. He only used Pay As You Go mobiles so I guess he changed his number on a weekly basis. He always said “I’ll call you”.

I was always having to change the phone number practically every time I saved the file! But this one time, he’d approved all the artwork and said yes to sending it to print, but somehow with my masses of different versions of the same artwork, I sent the wrong file to print! I sent one with the old phone number for a print run of 7,000! He came back to collect the cards, and spotted the error... I’d designed and printed 7,000 callcards with the wrong bloody phone number on! So they were useless. My boss wasn’t happy as he had to foot the bill and we had 7,000 useless cards to get rid of! Whoops!

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ST: Haha. You could have given them to Nana to use in the fireplace. I bet Mr. French wasn’t too pleased. How did the job end? Was he sad to see you go? Or do pimps not have emotions?

P: The job ended when I applied to Fabrica and was awarded a scholarship to go and live and work in Italy. I applied thinking I’d never get in, but somehow I got in without even being interviewed! I did include all my callcard designs so who knows it could have been because of them! So, the seedy design job came to a very swift end and within about 2 weeks I was living in Italy. I never saw or heard from Mr French again, and I couldn’t tell you whether he was sad to see me go. Judging by what he does for a living, I’m guessing he doesn’t have that much emotion towards women!

ST: Thanks for your time. I was thinking about ending this chat with a kind of “Have you any advice for someone looking to get into this kind of work?” but it occurs to me that probably not a lot of people are! (As fun as it sounds!)

P: Go and get a job in a print shop in Soho, you’ll be inundated with bizarre design jobs and meet an array of very intriguing clients that will give you many interesting stories to tell for years after.