Hidden beds springing out of woodwork

The modern Murphy bed - this one is by the Closet Works - is better-looking and easier to lower and raise. It's especially appropriate for small living spaces.
The modern Murphy bed - this one is by the Closet Works - is better-looking and easier to lower and raise. It's especially appropriate for small living spaces.
Posted: January 12, 2013

Ever since Charlie Chaplin first recognized their slapstick potential nearly a century ago, Murphy beds have found themselves typecast in the popular imagination as low-end, unwieldy pieces of furniture that can be outright treacherous for the accident-prone.

But in recent years, the Murphy bed has undergone a makeover, benefiting from exterior treatments that allow it to blend into a row of bookcases and cabinets or tuck seamlessly behind a wall hung with artwork and finished with crown molding. Add to that improved, user-friendly mechanisms, and this space-saver has shifted from punchline to pragmatic investment - or even statement piece.

"Interest has picked up in recent years for a combination of reasons," said David Cutler, owner of the Closet Works in Montgomeryville, which specializes in custom cabinetry. He estimates that over the last two to three years, Murphy-bed orders have at least doubled.

Many of the reasons relate to the economy: Older couples are downsizing, kids are moving back in with their parents, homeowners are choosing to renovate rather than move to a new house. Many rooms have to do double duty.

Loyalists of the Murphy (named for inventor William L. Murphy) point out that wall beds, as they're also known, take up little floor space - usually a depth of about 18 inches - and accommodate twin-, full-, queen- or king-size mattresses. Since they can fit standard mattresses, they tend to beat a pullout couch when it comes to comfort.

Given all that, Carole Smith, 66, decided a Murphy bed would be a more gracious, space-efficient way to host guests at her new apartment in Kennett Square.

In the fall, Smith and her partner downsized from a 5,000-square-foot house in Mount Airy, shrinking their domain from four bedrooms to one.

"It's a retirement community, so there were not a lot of choices of larger quarters," Smith said. "We knew we still wanted to entertain, and we would occasionally have either friends or family who wanted to stay over."

Their window-lined, three-season room now doubles as a guest room; custom-built walnut cabinetry holds shelves, storage, and a full-size Murphy bed for guests.

Cutler said more clients like Smith are being swayed by easy-to-use mechanisms (they're spring-loaded, so there aren't many "Three Stooges" moments these days), and more versatile designs, including beds that fold down lengthwise or sideways to fit space limitations. Other innovations include a bed that transitions into a desk, a popular choice for crowded dorms and kids' rooms. Like many next-generation Murphy beds, these are freestanding pieces of furniture that can move into a new room or apartment as needed.

"You can have any kind of cabinetry surrounding it that you want - cabinets that hold the bedding, shelving units, accessories - and match pretty much any style," Cutler said.

But this trend is not just for empty-nesters and boomerang kids, Cutler pointed out. Designed and manufactured in Germany, the Zoom-Room - a memory-foam mattress that scrolls up behind a wall unit when not in use and unfurls at the push of a button - is especially popular among young professionals with more disposable income than floor space. They often opt to mount a television on the wall unit.

"It's a very sexy kind of thing. We've done that in Manhattan for young guys in a studio apartment. It's a statement."

Still, for most Murphy bed owners, the byword is versatility.

Carol Seelaus, a professional organizer, relishes maximizing space - and minimizing condo fees, which are assessed by the square foot. She selected her 500-square-foot Bala Cynwyd studio apartment in part because of the Murphy bed that came with it.

"Everything in my apartment has a dual purpose. I have a sofa bed; my dining table folds up into an end table; a lamp and little table become my night table," she said. "I have a living room, a bedroom and a dining room; I just can't have them all simultaneously."

Seelaus has also steered several of her clients toward Murphy beds, noting that they're easier to put away than convertible sofas are.

While a shoebox-size urban apartment or a retirement-community condo might seem like a Murphy bed's natural habitat, demand is increasing among suburban homeowners as well, Cutler said.

One demographic that's driving that is older residents looking to adapt their homes to accommodate changing needs as they age.

Adèle Danziger, a former registered nurse-turned-interior designer who specializes in accessible design, said Murphy beds often make sense for her clients who want to prepare for when they may need to live exclusively on the ground floor.

"A lot of times, we put additions onto homes in anticipation of what's to come. So the bed may not be necessary at first," she explained. "This way, it's there when you need it; it's not when you don't."

For a client in Churchville, Bucks County, Danziger designed a ground-floor addition including a sitting room with a Murphy bed encased in custom wood cabinetry. The bed also includes a nightstand and a wooden handle to help get in and out of bed.

"It's a beautiful piece of furniture. This client didn't want the old Murphy beds from the I Love Lucy days that popped out of the wall and the mattress was just 3 inches thick," Danziger said.

Pricing has, of course, changed since those days as well, though a basic, prefabricated Murphy bed cabinet and folding mechanism can be had for less than $1,000, or made at home for a few hundred dollars using a kit or a pattern purchased online. A queen-size Murphy bed with custom cabinetry might run about $2,600 or more, Cutler said, and Zoom-Room beds are at least double that.

For Murphy-bed devotees, though, it's not just a piece of furniture: It's a lifestyle. Seelaus, for one, doesn't see herself switching back to a standard bed. She and her boyfriend purchased a Shore house not long ago, and she's lobbying to install a wall-bed there, too.

"You do have to have discipline, though. You have to make the bed in the morning," she said.

But she prefers it that way. "To walk into your apartment and there's a bed there, it takes away your incentive to do anything. You just kind of fall into it."

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