The Bedside Battleground
Consider the bedside table, a modest domestic surface that nonetheless offers as concise a portrait of human aspirations, anxieties and appetites as one could hope for in 2013. It's a mess. Look at the tangle of electronics and other items, for example, that hums next to the head of David Rose, 46, a visiting scientist at the M.I.T. Media Lab, as he sleeps - or, more often, doesn't. Mr. Rose, the inventor of what is known as "glanceable technology," which embeds digital interfaces in objects like light bulbs and cabinetry, has a Zeo sleep monitor; a Philips Sleep light (it dims as he gets ready for shut-eye); a cordless phone; an iPhone; a Bose speaker dock that his wife uses as her phone charger; a wristwatch; and a few paperbacks. It's all jammed onto the 18-by-24-inch landscapes of a pair of Ikea night stands that he and his wife have had for decades."It's embarrassing," Mr. Rose said parenthetically, "to still be in this 20-year transition from Ikea." But it's the gear atop the night stand, and the attendant tangle, that is the real issue. Or, as Alexa Hampton, president of Mark Hampton, the interior design firm, said recently, the collision of "electronica and nostalgia" that occurs nightly on the bedside table is a challenge. Ms. Hampton keeps photographs of her husband and children there, along with her iPad, her iPad Mini and her BlackBerry (which serves as her alarm clock), each with its own charger, as well as a riot of cosmetic equipment like tweezers, cuticle clippers and a magnifying mirror. All that, plus her eyeglasses and a stack of books, sits in a jumble on a silver tray. "You can see it's not simply a problem of technology," Ms. Hampton said. But in the last half-decade, it is the addition of new technologies that has roiled this already crowded space. And designers and manufacturers are puzzling over how to mediate the mess.Robin Standefer, the movie-set-designer-turned-architectural-designer who has been reinventing hotels and domestic interiors from here to Argentina with her husband, Stephen Alesch, offered an analogy. "It's like that new airplane," she said, referring to the Boeing Dreamliner. "It has all these electronics, all these functions, and it's getting bigger and bigger. I have a complicated relationship with the bedside table. I want it to be something that's somewhat serene. I want to look up from the pillow and not see a display from Radio Shack."Sleep surveys confirm the digital invasion of the bedroom. In the most recent study by the National Sleep Foundation, a nonprofit group devoted to "sleep health," conducted in 2011, 72 percent of respondents reported that they take their phone to bed with them; 49 percent said they take a computer or tablet; and 13 percent, an e-reader. In 2010, a Pew Research poll found that 90 percent of those between 18 and 29 slept with their cellphones next to the bed. And it appears these devices are augmenting all sorts of bedroom behaviors. In this month's GQ magazine, for instance, in a decorating feature about the bedroom, readers are cautioned not to check their smartphones after sex. "We know that looking at your phone is the new smoking after sex," reads the caption, "but at least wait until she leaves the room."Decorators struggle with order in this area in part because they prefer to flank a bed with drawer-free tables (Celerie Kemble, a Manhattan designer, said, "I like bistro tables, cabriole tables, even outdoor furniture") instead of actual night stands. Ms. Standefer put it this way: "I want to see legs, not something boxy." But that affinity, Ms. Kemble said, "leaves the conundrum of how do you hide the electronics? The iPad and the Kindle, most clients have both. And the iPhone and the BlackBerry. Don't forget the Invisalign, the night-grinding guards, the sleep apnea masks and the birth control. You have to have the conversation about birth control before you shop for the table. Single guys have to have some place to put the condoms. And what about the meds, the Ambien and the Viagra? Or earplugs? And for late-night worries, you need a place to put a pad of paper and a pen."To corral all this stuff, Ms. Kemble has used silver trays, antique tea caddies or boxes, small chests and even desks with surge protectors fitted into the drawers. For significant equipment issues, she suggested, "How about a skirted table and a big tray you can whisk everything onto and slide underneath?"Tiffiny Johnson, a senior buyer at Design Within Reach, said it's a particular challenge for modernists or anyone for whom a drawer-less side table and a single (vintage) paperback is an aesthetic ideal. "The new devices have made us think about what the customer really uses it for," she said. "Books are going away. Everyone has their books on their devices, and the devices are getting smaller. And there's cord escape. We have to be thinking about where is the power source."A new collection designed byJeffrey Bernett and Nicholas Dodziuk and out this August, offers three scenarios: a bed with storage underneath and a small round table that clips to its side; a bed with a large headboard and floating night stands with drawers; and the third, "a wide, grand bed," Ms. Johnson said, "and a more traditional night stand, with open and concealed storage, for stuff that's more private."Because even the private stuff has become more elaborate. "Are we going to talk about the sex toys?" asked one father of young children whose wife requested he not give his name. For examples of a few of the items stored in his night stand, he directed this reporter to Good Vibrations, an online emporium with a dizzying array of wares, including a collection of hot-pink silicone vibrators that looked as if they might have been produced by Alessi. "We also have the one that plugs into an iPod," he said. "I can't say that it's a favorite." (He was referring to Naughtibod, a vibrator that thrums to your iPod's playlist.)William Georgis, an architect who designs glamorous modern environments for art collectors like Aby Rosen, said he occasionally puts hidden drawers in the bedside furniture he creates for clients. In one instance, in the single drawer of a parchment-covered night stand with bronze feet that he designed for a family with young children, there was a pullout tray concealing a drawer-within-a-drawer, like an 18th-century desk might have had to hide love letters."It takes you to the next level," Mr. Georgis said. "We are designing for the toys." Maurice Blanks, one of the principals of Blu Dot, the upstart contemporary furniture maker in Minneapolis, was equally upfront about all the gear his company's bedroom furniture is designed to accommodate. In Blu Dot's online catalog, you will read that the Modu-licious night stand ($499) can hold six copies of Architectural Digest and multiple numbers of one particularly fearsome bondage accessory. "Most of our conversation focuses on closed storage," Mr. Blanks said. "People are spending more time in their bedrooms, and their bedroom behavior has changed. And modernism has gotten less dogmatic in the last 10 years. People are wanting modern to be more functional. The perfect little pedestal table with one book is maybe not as appealing."Technology is changing so fast, Mr. Blanks added, that it is best for furniture makers to address it in only the most general ways - with cord management, for example, usually a hole in the back of a drawer or shelf, but nothing as specific as a docking station - so that the pieces will be relevant a decade from now. Social scientists say that bedrooms are honest spaces, because they are private. If you show your best self, or who you hope others see you as, in your living room, your real self can be found on that night stand.Sam Gosling, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and the author of "Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You," said, "Look for disconnects: Is there Plato, Shakespeare and Goethe on the living room shelves and trashy novels on the bedside table?"Of course, Dr. Gosling added, we show our aspirations in the bedroom as well - for example, in the stacks of books we hope to read but never quite get to. "My stack of books not only lets you know that I read, but tells you something about my aspirations," he said. "And how unrealistic I am about my expectations." 12 PhotosView Slide Show âºAnthony P. Graesch, an assistant professor of anthropology at Connecticut College who was part of a team that studied the material culture of 32 Los Angeles families for four years, pointed out that the "affordances," or visual clues, of bedside tables are sometimes edited away because of practical concerns."Parents with young children, for example, cannot store a wide array of items on/in bedside tables, if only for the fact that these objects will be appropriated, abused or outright stolen by curious hands," he wrote in an e-mail. "In my house, we have only one bedside table, which now holds only an alarm clock and a book. The 4-year-old and 2-year-old will make off with anything of value (e.g., a portable book lamp, spare change, a Tylenol bottle), and so we keep these objects on higher ground. There is also the issue of available space. At Casa Graesch, our bedroom is only large enough to contain one bedside table. As such, I do not have my own personal night stand; I lost that battle and so I do without."A word of warning here about doing without: Reiko Gomez, an interior designer and feng shui practitioner, said she would advise Dr. Graesch to fight for his own dedicated space. "It's important to have two bedside tables," she said. "That keeps balance in the relationship."But what to make of the "affordances" on the bedside table belonging to Mr. Rose, the scientist from M.I.T.? The abundant gear indicates that he and his wife are both light sleepers and perhaps slightly competitive. Mr. Rose called the Zeo sleep monitor "a little other," an assist in "the gamification of sleep." (Sleep monitors measure your sleep states and provide you with a sleep score, he explained.) "I really want to do well in terms of sleep," he said. "I want to maintain the streak." Mr. Rose's wife used to have a Zeo, too, he said, but he took it away from her because she kept telling him to turn off the light earlier and earlier, so she could hit her REM sleep faster. "She's a little more O.C.D. than I am," he added. "I didn't like the effect."Clutter busters like Leslie McKee, a professional organizer in Pittsburgh, view electronic sleep aids with the same disdain they have for elaborate organizing products. "The things that are there to support sleep, even a white-noise machine, can add to the clutter that gets in the way of sleep," she said. "People who are overwhelmed lose their energy right there by the bed. We try to advocate for simplicity." She continued: "We can bring in a basket for the electronics, drill a hole through the back of a chest for cords, but anything that sends a message of too much to do, you don't want nudging you in that space. O.K., you have 1,500 books on your Kindle. So you've cleaned up the clutter, but there's still an enormous gap of what you can do and what you're getting done. I ask people, 'What did your grandmother have next to her bed?' A little doily, a photograph, something that made her happy. Think about what your grandmother did, and get some sleep."Finally, while so many are wringing their hands over the hubbub in the contemporary bedroom, historians and even some sleep experts are starting to question the dogma that it has to be an altar to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Sleeping in two shifts, they say, may actually be a natural tendency, not a byproduct of age or worry.Lucy Worsley, chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, a British conservation group, and the author of "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home," makes the point that not only are private bedrooms (and beds) a relatively modern construct, but so, too, is the eight-hour rest. "That's an invention of the industrial age and the factory owners," she said. Dr. Worsley described the rhythms of a typical Tudor household, with people waking up naturally just past midnight, after their "first sleep," as she put it, and hanging out for a bit."They were chatting with their spouse, having sex, doing housework, even going out and robbing other people," she said. "Stealing pigs, for example. That's where the expression 'saving one's bacon' comes from. You know, they must have been very lively at night, those Tudor villages." After an hour or so, Mr. and Mrs. Tudor would get back in bed for their "second sleep," Dr. Worsley said. "There's a weird parallel between today and the Tudors, with people sleeping fitfully and doing a lot of things in bed. I guess I would say that the biggest thing missing from people's beds today, as opposed to the past, is company. And yet it's present again, through technology. What goes around, comes around."