The bedside story

The bedside story

As digital invasion of the bedroom gets real,designers try to mediate the mess

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 that hums next to the head of David Rose,46,a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab,as he sleeps. 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; an iPhone; 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.

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. Hampton keeps photographs of her family there,along with her iPad,her iPad Mini and her BlackBerry 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,” Hampton says.


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.

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 per cent of respondents reported that they take their phone to bed with them; 49 per cent said they take a computer or tablet; and 13 per cent,an e-reader. In 2010,a Pew Research poll found that 90 per cent of those between 18 and 29 slept with their cellphones next to the bed.

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,says,“Look for disconnects: Is there Plato,Shakespeare and Goethe on the living room shelves and trashy novels on the bedside table?”

Anthony 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,points 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; these objects will be appropriated or outright stolen by curious hands,” he writes. “In my house,we have only one bedside table,which now holds only an alarm clock and a book. As such,I do not have my own personal night stand; I lost that battle and so I do without.”

Finally,while so many are wringing their hands over the hubbub in the contemporary bedroom,historians and 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 a relatively modern construct,but so,too,is the eight-hour rest. Worsley describes 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.

After an hour or so,Mr and Mrs Tudor would get back in bed for their “second sleep”,Worsley says. “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.”