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The squishiest, sweetest sleep

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It was 1967, the Summer of Love, and Charles Hall, a student at San Francisco State University, was experimenting with flotation furniture, as he called it then, for an engineering class.

null play The squishiest, sweetest sleep

He used Jell-O and cornstarch at first, but the squashy gunk, poured into a vinyl bladder, was too heavy to move. And it began to stink after a few days. Then he tried water. “Rancid Jell-O Led to First Water Bed,” a newspaper headline proclaimed at the time.

It was 1967, the Summer of Love, and Charles Hall, a student at San Francisco State University, was experimenting with flotation furniture, as he called it then, for an engineering class. (He got an “A.”) The following year, after some tweaks, his 8-foot-square heated “Pleasure Pit” debuted at a gallery on Leavenworth Street, as part of a show called “The Happy Happening.”

Hall was living in Haight-Ashbury, in an apartment in a listing Victorian that rented for $67. It was August, a slow news cycle, Hall recalled, and the Pleasure Pit made news around the country.

It was Hall’s idea that the contraption was both bed and chair, the only piece of furniture you’d ever need. Mattress companies rebuffed him in those early days, as did department stores, so he sold it himself, using his Rambler station wagon to deliver beds to local head shops, a member of Jefferson Airplane, a Smothers brother (he can’t remember which), a nudist colony (which bought two) and, inevitably, Hugh Hefner, who ordered one for the Playboy Mansion, upholstered in green velvet.

“I think it got a lot of use there,” Hall said. But he himself was no sybarite; he was earnest about his invention’s benefits: how weightlessness contributed to health and well-being. “I was trying to make a better sleep experience,” he said.

Eventually Hall and a partner found investors, and their company, Innerspace Environments, opened more than 30 stores throughout California. Although Hall patented his heated, lined version, which he sold on a sturdy redwood frame, there were many, many imitators, offering cheaply made, leak-prone knockoffs for a fraction of the cost. The first “Pleasure Bed,” as Hall called his model, went for $350.

Hall remembered one shady seller whose product line also included “orgy butter” and fake theological doctoral degrees. There were rumors of electrocutions and floors collapsing from the weight of all that water (a king-size bed might weigh as much as 2,300 pounds, some newspapers reported); landlords got the jimjams. (In New York City, they remain leery: Most standard leases still contain a “no-water-bed rider,” said Zach Gutierrez, a consultant at Cityrealty.com, which collects real estate data.)

By 1975, Hall’s company was in bankruptcy, not because of the competition, he said, but rather mismanagement by his investors, and he had moved on to other ventures like solar showers, inflatable kayaks and camping mattresses.

The water bed evolved nonetheless, shaking off its sleazy associations as a lame sexual prop and sight gag. By 1984, Waterbed Magazine fretted that its customers were aging, “edging toward the 40-year-old category.” In 1986, according to the Waterbed Manufacturers Association, water bed sales reached nearly $2 billion — between 12 and 15 percent of the U.S. mattress market — and retailers like Waterbed City, based in South Florida, were making millions of dollars.

While Hall was always touted as the father of the industry, he did not share in those riches, although he continued to advise a number of companies and to design improvements to the original product, as did others. Gone were the shin-nicking wooden frames, and the early sloshings, as water beds went waveless and mainstream, encased in soft-edged mattress forms that looked just like their coil-filled cousins.

You could buy baby water beds, and suites of water bed furniture, including one wince-making number in dark wood paneling, the “Captain Pedestal,” that looked like a high boy married to a schooner.

By 1991, 1 of every 5 mattresses sold was a water bed. That same year, Hall won a lawsuit against a Taiwanese manufacturer for patent infringement. A jury awarded him $4.8 million, plus interest, which he shared with investors who had chipped in for his legal fees. “It was about the principle of the thing more than anything else,” he said.

‘They Last Forever’

Yet only a few years later, water beds had lost their luster. Traditional mattress companies figured out how to approximate the comforts of a water bed with pillow tops and foam, and most people turned away, although there were stalwarts who clung to their vinyl oddities like gear heads with an eight-track.

Water-bed manufacturers found other markets, like dairy-cow farmers, who had discovered that the soft structures protect their generally prone animals’ joints (dairy cows do their best work lying down). Wistful articles began to appear about the dwindling number of water-bed salesmen, and their loyal, aging customers. Last year, someone started a GoFundMe campaign to buy a bed from a dealer in Tampa, Florida, who was planning to shutter his 46-year-old business, raising $167.

One staunch holdout is Roland Formica, who opened his water-bed business, Odds-N-Ends, just north of Berkeley, California, in 1969 (he also sold antiques, leather goods and head shop accouterments). Although he closed his physical storefront in 2016, he continues to sell water beds online, nearly 50 this year, along with parts.

“A lonely soldier,” is how Allen Salkin, a New York Times reporter who had grown up on a water bed (a bar mitzvah present, and it vibrated), described Formica in a 2003 profile. (Six years ago, Salkin broke down and bought a water bed from Formica for his Lower East Side apartment; it is currently for sale, however, since his girlfriend has vetoed its move to their new home in California.)

“If I sell you a bed,” Formica said the other day, “you’re not going to need another for 10 or 15 years. They last forever. Who the hell would go into a business like that? It’s a predicament.”

On a recent stormy afternoon, Hall, now 75, sat in the glassy living room of his pristine bungalow on Bainbridge Island, Washington, overlooking Puget Sound and showed off his water-bed scrapbook, a kitschy trove of vintage print media.

There were brochures for Innerspace Environments that promised in purple prose that the water bed, its photo accessorized with the requisite female nude, was “a friend in love with you, beckoning you to grovel in rapturous sensual splendor.” There was a copy of Maxim magazine’s history of sex — “four billion years of quality nookie” — which noted Hall’s patent application. Playboy’s May 1971 issue showcased his velvet upholstered number, along with a glowing Lucite version made by Bloomingdale’s.

It was the 50th anniversary, more or less, of the water bed’s beginnings, and Hall, a soft-spoken man in a gray fleece and bluejeans, was newly bullish on his invention, which he has reprised and updated for a Casper world.

Three years ago, two of Hall’s long-ago colleagues, Keith Koenig of City Furniture (né Waterbed City) and Michael Geraghty, a former water-bed manufacturer whose company was bought by Sealy and who has sent water beds to burn victims in Russia, decided, as Koenig said, “that it was time. I said to Michael, ‘Get Charlie!'”

Hall’s next-gen water bed is called Afloat. A queen-size bed costs $1,995 to $2,395, which includes a heater, a kit to fill it up and drain it (a 25-foot hose is included) and a metal frame. A canvas sling helps to heft the deflated mattress around. (An unfilled queen weighs about 40 pounds; with water, it’s about 1,200 pounds. All Afloat beds fall within building-code floor-loading requirements, Geraghty said, adding that 1,200 pounds is roughly equivalent to six or seven people sitting around your dining room table.)

Since July, Koenig has been selling Afloats out of three of his South Florida stores to test the market. “The first order was maybe 100,” he said, “and they sold out pretty quickly.”

Next month, Hall and his colleagues said, you’ll be able to buy Afloat online. They promise a 100-night guarantee with a full refund, as Casper does, and free shipping. Hall said that he hopes Afloat’s market will be not just aging, achy boomers, but Gen Xers and millennials. “It’s like salmon,” he said. “They’ll return to the place where they were spawned.”

No Critters

Hall, who has spent most of his adult life sleeping on a water bed, lives alone with two Afloats: a dual mattress in his guest room, with side-by-side bladders you can heat or cool to your taste, and a king-size, single-bladder bed in his own room, a lofty extension he built a few years ago.

With 40 patents to his name, Hall also has houses in California (Sonoma and Santa Barbara) and nine sports cars, including a 1966 E-Type Jaguar Roadster, an Aston Martin, a Ferrari and a silver Mercedes coupe. He has two grown daughters; their mother, Suzanne, died 25 years ago of ovarian cancer. “She was my soul mate,” he said.

Both Afloats looked perfectly normal, set upon low-slung platform beds. Hall, a collector of post-Mao Chinese art, whose taste runs to West Coast minimalism, had dressed them nicely. I took my shoes off and lay down, as Hall extolled a water-bed benefit I’d never considered: no critters.

“If you weigh a regular mattress after it’s been used for a few years, it will be heavier than when you bought it,” he said. “That’s because it will be filled with your sweat and skin cells, and the dust mites and bedbugs that feed on them.”

Moving right along, the bed felt great: There was a bit of motion, a kind of floaty up-and-down sensation.

“It’s got full cradling,” Hall said with pride.

“Two things are better on a water bed,” an early ad once announced. “One of them is sleeping.”

But wasn’t water-bed sex rather a challenge, I wondered, given the instability of the surface?

Hall blushed. “Because this water bed fills in any open spots, the motion is suppressed substantially,” he said. “The cuddling and position aspects are far better than anything you could imagine.”

I asked about his marketing plan: sex or comfort? “I think for our generation, it’s comfort,” he said. “Maybe sex for the millennials.”

In the mid-'70s, David Rockwell, the designer of hotels, hospitals and playgrounds, Broadway shows and a couple of Oscar ceremonies, slept on a water bed in his attic dorm room. He was in architecture school at Syracuse University then, and he chose the bed mostly because it was low and fit the look he was after: He had wrapped his room in red burlap, and the décor included a fish tank, a butterfly chair and a pair of Mexican huaraches.

“A bed that comes with its own climate is interesting,” Rockwell said in a phone interview, noting Afloat’s temperature control. “A microclimate! When it’s hot, you want an ice-cold drink. There is something kind of fabulous about being able to cool or heat the mattress. In a hotel context, I don’t know if it checks the box of dependable and affordable. It certainly checks the box of being different and quirky.”

There are still fortunes to be made in the bedroom. Mattresses are a $15 billion industry, according to Furniture Today, a trade publication. Last week, as it happened, David Perry, Furniture Today’s mattress editor, was in Orlando, Florida, for a conference, and he and his colleagues spent an afternoon at a City Furniture there, rolling around on the new water beds. He took notes.

“One retailer said, ‘The ‘80s are calling, they want their water bed back,'” Perry told me. “Another said, ‘This is retro, and how hot is retro right now? Vinyl records are back, why not water beds?'”

“Obviously I’ve laid down on maybe thousands of beds over the last 30 years,” Perry continued. “These felt great. You could feel the water. You’re literally rocking in the water. That might be a ‘love it or hate it’ feeling. They harken back to the glory days of water beds, but modern technology makes them more comfortable than the water beds of yesteryear. These are positioned as premium products, a smart move, as consumers really want better sleep, not cheaper sleep. I think the timing is fantastic. Water beds were the original disrupters. They used to call inner springs ‘dead beds.'”

Warren Shoulberg, a retailing journalist and consultant to the home furnishings industry, also thinks the time is ripe for the return of this aqueous sleep aid.

“This generation doesn’t have the association that water beds eventually got as a place where lonely single men slept, in hopes of luring young ladies into their homes,” Shoulberg said. “The other thing is that consumers have no idea what’s inside most mattresses. It’s all gobbledygook. It’s this great mystery, and the industry loves it that way. It thrives on that confusion. The water bed is simple. It’s a big bag that holds water.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Penelope Green © 2018 The New York Times

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