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Futons

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  • Life’s padded pitstop

    Image copyright: MTV

    For decades, buying a futon has been a rite of passage, one saved for a first dorm or apartment, when you can barely find the budget for a bed or a couch. Futons do both duties inexpensively, while making a distinctly youthful statement.

    Unlike clunky sofa beds, whose mattresses can barely be wrestled free, futons adhere to the minimalist form-follows-function rule, making them more aesthetically honest. They’re also more easily lugged from space to space until that day they’re dropped off at the curb to make room for a proper sofa.

    Grown-ups are not supposed to have futons, some design writers say. In cultural references, sleeping on a futon in middle age is shorthand for a post-divorce crash or a stagnant career. When it debuted in the late 1970s, however, the American futon was a serious interpretation of a Japanese way of living.

    Let’s look at how it all unfolded.

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  • By the digits

    $135: Cost of a queen size American futon in 1984, during the futon’s golden years

    $1,000-$1,200: Typical price for a futon set of the same size, with a solid wood frame, in 2020

    $300-400: Price of a click-clack (or klick-klack) futon that “clicks” into various reclining positions and has a metal frame

    3: Number of books in Russel Middlebrook: The Futon Years, a series by American author Brent Hartinger, a pioneer in LGBTQ fiction for young adults

    20: Minutes customers could rent a traditional Japanese futon to take a nap at Futon Izakaya, a pub and restaurant in Osaka, for only 500 yen (just less than $5) in 2019

    $70: Cost to sleep on a Japanese futon in Narita airport, while waiting for your Covid-19 test results, in the earliest days of the pandemic

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  • Origin story

    Image copyright: Getty

    In Japan, futons are slim mattresses, about two or three or four inches thick, made from multiple layers of cotton batting and used exclusively for nocturnal bliss, never doubling as a sofa. They’re wide enough for only a single sleeper, and are rolled out on top of foam mats to create a cozy layered bed that’s easily folded up and put away in a closet or cabinet during the day.

    Anyone who has traveled to Japan will be familiar with the system if they’ve stayed at a traditional inn (a ryokan) and watched a housekeeper unpack and set up the bedding on traditional tatami flooring, then return the next morning to quickly stow it all again.

    The Western futon looks and functions very differently. It was invented in the late ‘70s, by a Bostonian named William Brouwer, a furniture designer, who paired a pliant, all-cotton mattress with a large slatted wood frame. His futon set could be arranged as a loveseat or a bed. Much like waistlines, futon mattresses in the West didn’t remain very slim, however, eventually becoming as thick as their traditional coiled counterparts.

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  • Quotable

    “Sleeping on a futon when you’re 30 is not the worst thing. You know what’s worse than sleeping on a futon at 30? Sleeping in a king bed next to a fucking woman you’re not really in love with, but for some reason married, and you got a couple of kids, and you got a job you fucking hate. You’ll be laying there fantasizing about fucking sleeping on a futon.”

    Bill Burr, comedian, on playing it safe versus pursuing your dream job

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  • Brief History

    1700s: Cotton becomes widely available in Japan, making it possible for average people, and not only the nobility, to sleep soundly on padded mats.

    1983: Shortly after its official debut, the western futon, by William Brouwer, wins the woodworking industry’s Daphne Award for design and approval by American baby boomers who are curious about Eastern philosophy.

    2005: Michael Scott, lead character on the American sitcom The Office, frets that his futon will repel a younger love interest.

    2014: Casper launches as a foam mattress bed-in-a-box brand leader. The fast-growing boxed mattress category will come to steal market share from the already suffering futon business.

    2017: The Quartz Obsession (then the Daily Obsession) email debuts, with one of the first editions diving into mattresses.

    2019: New Yorkers learn details about mayor Bill de Blasio’s questionable use of the New York Police Department special protection unit assigned to his safety, discovering that NYPD officers moved his daughter’s futon from her Brooklyn apartment to Gracie Mansion.

    2019: Just when you thought the futon-sofa concept had appeared in every possible guise, the startup Burrow sells the Sleep Kit, consisting of a thin mattress you roll out over sofa cushions, much like adding a Japanese futon to your western couch.

    2020: Three New York City railroad employees are suspended without pay for building a “mancave” in an abandoned room under Grand Central Station. Their crash pad included a TV, a refrigerator, a microwave, and a futon couch.

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  • Did you know?

    In academic publishing, having a “FUTON bias” has nothing to do with dorm room furniture preferences. Instead, FUTON stands for “full text on the net,” and FUTON bias is the tendency for researchers to read and cite scholarly work that’s available online, at the expense of worthwhile studies that pre-date the internet or exist in print format in developing nations.

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  • Watch this!

    This hypnotic video of a high-end sofa bed by Milano Smart Living lifting up and out of a sofa case with the press of a button captures the space-age promise of multifunctional furniture. You’re going to want your audio on.

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  • You had one job

    It wasn’t until the futon was re-interpreted by an American designer that it became a dual-purpose piece of furniture of the sort design writers regularly predict as the Next Big Thing. Somehow, however, the Swiss Army knife approach to furnishings has failed to go mainstream.

    Does it all come down to that design cliché, that less is more? Anicka Quin, editorial director of Western Living magazine in Vancouver, Canada, believes most double-duty pieces aren’t as great as single-duty ones. “A coffee table that’s just a coffee table is often more elegantly designed.”

    And yet, there are exceptions that stand out in shape-shifting furniture. The New York-based brand Resource Furniture, Quin notes, makes striking minimalist tables that can be extended or adjusted to various heights. For the most part, though, making furniture that looks equally gorgeous when in use or flat and stacked is a superior space-saving tactic.

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