Writings

Increasingly dated

Inevitable Design

Our bed, although regrettably not our bedroom

Our bed, although regrettably not our bedroom

During the summer of 2015 my wife and I slept on a mattress on the floor for three or four months. The veneer on our IKEA monstrosity had begun to chip and warp, so one day I ordered a Casper mattress and threw everything else out the moment it arrived.

Harkening back to the William Morris quote about only bringing into your home that which you know to be useful and feel to be beautiful, it's truly surprising just how hard it is to find those two properties in one piece of furniture. Most furniture is at best ‘variant on a theme’, at worst insensitive and utterly compromised.

It took looking at hundreds of bed frames to find a simple, elegant walnut frame well above our price level. After a couple of months of indecision on the floor it became clear that there was in reality no choice at all and we bought our new bed, The queen-sized American Modern bed from Design Within Reach*.

And it's amazing. No more than a sturdy wooden plate, beveled inwards along the bottom to create the illusion of thinness, with six brass-capped legs (one in each corner, two in the center, out of sight).

In the foot-end a ledge runs the breadth of the frame holding the mattress in place. The mattress otherwise simply lays on the frame making access effortless, and at the head, three curved pieces of metal hold up a simple round-edged headboard, tilted slightly backwards.

It's clear just from looking at the frame itself that the materials are great, but it's the design that is the price; what Jony Ive would call “inevitable”. I would later find out that this design was in fact done by George Nelson 60 years ago. That’s staying power.

Having spent time perusing bed frames, I can’t help but wonder—since beds have always been around—why are the vast majority so utterly ‘evitable’?

Perhaps because inevitable design also requires great materials. Not simply because it makes the bed look better, but because the materials dictate what's possible.

Dieter Rams’ famous Vitsoe shelving system is likewise inevitable—I could write an essay on its design qualities alone–but he likewise lamented that to create the shelves to the quality he needed, he couldn’t make it the affordable solution he had originally aimed for.

Great materials, with the strength to pull together great design, are expensive, so most bed designs construct their way to the strength needed to support the human body, causing the inevitable to be obscured by assemblage, insipid wide-edged sides and a morass of structural compromises.

There's a parable to software design in there somewhere.

* The American Modern line of bedroom furniture disappeared a few months after we bought our bed and in its place Design Within Reach trumpeted the arrival of the Nelson Thin Edge collection. Nearly identical furniture, higher priced. The American Modern line might have been an attempt a new version of the Thin Edge collection? It's strange either way as it seems like Herman Miller, which owns Design Within Reach, also holds the right to the Nelson collections, so why the intermediary step? We’ll never know.

Michael Heilemann