Although waterbeds have long been seen as kitschy and embarrassing, the bed’s inventor thinks the tide of public opinion might be turning in their favour.
In 1968, Charlie Hall presented a vinyl bed filled with heated water as his Master’s Thesis project at San Francisco State University. Not only was the waterbed popular amongst his classmates, but Hall was also able to set up a two-man company the next year, making waterbeds with redwood frames. “It was such a curiosity, and people had never seen anything like that moved and was compliant like that,” Hall told Toronto Star in a recent interview. The beds became a massively popular counterculture symbol in the 1970s, and according to the Atlantic, they made up 20% of mattress sales by the mid-1980s. But the bed’s raunchy associations eventually became a liability, leaving the market high and dry by the 1990s.
Still, Hall believes that a waterbed comeback is possible since millennials don’t have their parents’ negative associations with the beds. In early January, he launched a new generation of the waterbed, his first new model in 30 years. “It looks like a conventional bed (but) it has a more compliant top on it so when you lay down on it you get more of the waterbed feel, which was always distinctively different than a regular mattress,” Hall told the Star. “And it controls temperature — you can have it warmer or cooler, set it the way you want, even right and left side if you have different preferences.”
The new mattresses have also cleared up the “wave” problem with the previous generation. In the older beds, the “free-flow” style meant that the bed tended to need stabilization after any kind of disturbance. But the newer beds, which have pockets of water and air, and which don’t allow water to flow freely through the bed, are far more stable.
Not everyone thinks the waterbed is ripe for a comeback. Edward Leon, of the furniture chain Leon’s, believes that the waterbed is too “niche” to make a real dent in the market. “I don’t see that coming back in a big way under any circumstances,” he told The Canadian Press in a recent interview.
But even if the beds don’t come back into vogue, Hall believes his waterbed influenced the current trend towards comfort-based, “contouring” materials like memory foam. “The whole interest [now is] conforming and comfort and pillow-tops and then memory foam and all that,” Hall told the Star. “If you read the ads, they read like waterbed ads.”
And, besides, Hall has a more fanciful reason to believe that the new waterbed won’t sink on entry: “My theory is there’s a whole generation that was spawned on a waterbed,” he said. “They’re going to swim upstream like salmon and buy another one.”
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