Mary Beth Klatt is a freelance writer with a passion for architecture and home design.
The Versatile Murphy Bed
Home office by day, comfy guest bedroom by night. Murphy beds are making a comeback as home owners seek to maximize their space.
January 1, 2009
A charming, retro space-saver is back in style. The Murphy bed, which can be flipped up inside a closet or cabinet when not in use, provides versatility in dwellings ranging from studios to country homes.
Once a favorite prop for comedians in early 20th century silent film era, the Murphy bed is now seeing its real heyday—especially in upscale urban lofts—some real estate practitioners and interior designers say.
"There's a demand for it," says William Robbins, a Columbus, Ohio real estate practitioner. "But at the same time, it's not widely available."
Robbins is surprised by how few people actually know about the Murphy bed, considering what a boon it would be for home owners who are short on space. He once told a client that thought a Murphy bed would be useful, but “in return, all I got was a blank stare," he recalls. At least one of his friends appreciates the versatility, and has one ready for guests in a spare bedroom. "She loves it," he says.
The Murphy bed got its name from its inventor, William Murphy, a Stockton, Calif., stagecoach driver. He and his wife didn't have enough room to entertain in their small San Francisco home, so he created a way to make his bed disappear when company was over.
Murphy patented his invention in 1912, and the space-saver became instantly popular in apartment buildings nationwide. Architects would design buildings with closets large enough to fit the popular bed. By the 1920s, Murphy had showrooms across the country.
During the Depression, Murphy consolidated his business and moved to New York City. Unfortunately, his wall bed design lost popularity, especially after World War II when Americans moved into large homes in the suburbs. The Murphy, as the bed is sometimes known, didn't see a resurgence until the late 1970s and early 1980s when the oil embargo kicked in and Americans downsized, says Eugene Kolakowski, vice president of Murphy Bed Co. Inc., of Farmingdale, N.Y.
The bed became even more widespread after a 1989 court ruling, in which Murphy beds lost trademark protection. At that point, knock offs entered the market in droves.
By the 1990s, the Murphy bed evolved into a sophisticated system complete with cabinetry. Empty nesters put them in home offices or dens for visiting grandchildren, while landlords began retrofitting 1950s-era originals.
But even today, some misconceptions exist—probably due to those funny silent films mentioned earlier. The biggest fallacy is probably that the bed can fold up while someone is sleeping on it, or fall down out of the wall unexpectedly. Not true, says Kolakowski: "They're designed so that they lean back into the closet, so they can never fall out," says Kolakowski.
Many people also think that the beds can’t be moved to a new residence, as traditional beds can be. In fact, current models can be disassembled and transported to another location. A well-made bed can last 50 to 60 years. It's a good thing, top-of-the-line beds aren't cheap.
Prices for Murphy Bed Co. Inc's products range from $715 for an "econo" twin to $1,280 for a California king. Mattresses range from $305 to $795, and cabinetry can add as much as $2,420 to the total price.
Robbins says developers would be smart to offer a built-in Murphy as an upgrade in a small apartment. The customization would distinguish the unit from similar ones on the market. That's definitely the case in New York City, where the beds have long been in vogue and even the well-to-do often live in tiny, expensive rentals.
Harold Stark Industrial Development installed the space-savers in a renovated 50-year-old apartment building. "They give a little more room during the day," says company spokesperson Peggy Dragone.
If a listing has a Murphy bed, look for these features:
- They're usually stored vertically in a wider-than-normal and deep closet or cabinet.
- Older beds are usually inside deep and wide closets. These typically don't have box springs, just frames.
- Watch for creaky parts that might need to be fixed.
- Contemporary versions have glass, mirror, and lights as well as shelves for computers, books, television sets and stereos. Some owners even decorate the wall above the area where the pillow rests with artwork that won't be knocked down by an upright mattress.
While Murphy beds are ideal for tiny apartments, they’re not just for small spaces.
After Becky and Tom Stilp had a pool house built at their summer home near New Buffalo, Mich., they had a queen-sized Murphy bed installed inside. It can be opened and closed with a set of sliding doors on a barn-door track. The bed gets used by relatives and friends who come over for barbecues and holiday parties.
Indeed, versatility is the best feature of Murphy beds, says Kolakowsky. A bedroom by night can turn into a sewing room or exercise room by day. And today’s models are cinch to open and close. "Even a seven-year-old can operate one," says Kolakowski.