Murphy beds go from slapstick to sophisticated

Just the name Murphy bed makes me laugh. It conjures memories of slapstick comedies, where the beds drop into rooms unannounced or swallow up unsuspecting characters at the most inopportune moments.

A bed tumbling out of nowhere into a living room or library seems so funny to me that when a pitch for a new generation of Murphy beds – please call them wall beds – hit my inbox recently, I almost didn’t take it seriously.

I sobered up quickly, however, as I thought about the last two years, when many of us struggled to find ways to make spaces in our homes do double, even triple duty. Kitchen tables became classrooms, bedrooms became offices and family rooms doubled as daycares. Grown kids boomeranged home at the same time  elderly parents fled senior living centers to move in with their adult children causing beds to be in short supply. Suddenly, a space-saving bed that disappears into a wall seems ingenious and quite possibly essential.

“Our company saw a big uptick in sales during the pandemic,” said Gabriella Pomata, spokeswoman for Resource Furniture, a New York-based seller of Italian wall beds, with nine showrooms throughout North America. “The last time we saw a similar spike was during the economic downturn in 2008, another time when grown kids were moving back home.”

The Murphy bed was born out of necessity, albeit a different kind. William Lawrence Murphy invented the first hide-a-bed back in 1900, so the story goes, because he was smitten with a young opera singer and wanted to have her to his place. The customs of the day frowned upon a lady entering a gentleman’s bedroom, and he lived in a one-room apartment. Undeterred, Murphy figured out a way to stow his bed in the closet and turn his room into a parlor. The couple married the same year. Murphy patented his invention soon after.

Thankfully, both industry experts and sleepers attest: We’ve come a long way from the inelegant aesthetics and iffy inner workings of those turn-of-the-century beds. And all agree that wall-beds today far surpass sofa beds for comfort.

“Today’s wall beds are perfectly suitable for adults to sleep on every night,” Pomata said.

“Now that it’s not your grandma’s Murphy bed anymore, you can put grandma on it?” I said.

“Exactly,” she said.

Christine Salzer, of Greenwich, Conn., recently put a queen-size wall bed in the guest room of her two-bedroom duplex, which she shares with her husband and two children. The move let her use the guest room as an office, too, and freed up her loft, where her office used to be, to create a bedroom for her children, ages 2 and 4.

By day, the bed is up, and a built-in desk unfurls into the room. When guests come, which is often, she pulls the bed down in under two minutes. The integrated desk and even the items on it get folded up and stored under the bed. “It was the perfect solution,” she said.

High-end wall-beds today often have integrated furniture, like these shelves and desk, allowing consumers to create rooms that serve two purposes. (Photo: Resource Furniture) 

For those looking for a flexible, space-saving sleeping solution, or who want to live bigger in a small space, here’s what Pomata says to consider when choosing a wall bed.

Placement: Choose a wall large enough to fit the bed with enough room to walk around it. Figure that when closed, the bed’s housing will come out from the wall about 14 inches. Some hinge from the top of the bed, others from the side, but whether it’s a twin, full or queen size, the bed may extend up to 85 inches into the room. Make sure that it won’t block swinging doors, vents or windows. Consider what furniture will need a new home when the bed comes down.

Framing: To help the bed housing blend into the room, many consumers add built in wall units, cabinets or open shelves of the same depth on either side. Wall beds often come with these components. Resource Furniture sells wall beds that have desks, kitchen tables and even sectional sofas attached. These fold up and under when the bed comes down and allow rooms to have two functions.

Cost: More than an air mattress, but a lot less than a room addition, Costco wall beds sell for $1,000 to $5,000. Resource Furniture’s luxury Italian beds run $6,000 to $20,000.