- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Some furnishings can be multitaskers, with everyday domestic items serving dual purposes, often in surprising ways. Beds turn into walls, ottomans into beds, coffee tables into wine bars, and benches become filing cabinets with only a minimal assist.

Most people are familiar with the sleeper sofa and its less illustrious relative, the portable fold-up bed or mattress. The futon that doubles as a sofa and sleeping mattress is a prime example of low-cost conversion. But stylish living in space-sparse times calls for some inventive measures that satisfy a certain aesthetic as well.

Target Co. for two years has had a Web-site-only item described as an ottoman sleeper in red, brown or black leather, 21-by-50-by-30 inches, made in Italy and selling for a little less than $600. The ottoman normally works as a flat seat cushion for two people. When opened, it becomes a twin-size bed with a headboard and a 4-inch-thick mattress.

“Our [customers] seem to be demanding multifunctioning furniture,” says Target spokeswoman Lena Michaud. “This is one of our better-selling furniture items on the Web.”

At the high end of the scale, Contemporaria in Georgetown offers an Italian-made ottoman sleeper in two sizes, twin and full, in a range of fabrics, that is said to be one of the most popular items in the store, selling strictly by word of mouth.

The smallest size is 36-by-30-by-161/2 inches, with a 4-inch-thick mattress. Prices start at $960.

Crate & Barrel stores sell what is known as a Taka Trunk ” basically a rustic-looking coffee table that, when opened up, reveals a bar large enough to hold several bottles of wine between removable dividers. Made of an Indian rosewood called sheesham, the piece measures 43-by-24-by-18 inches and can be opened on either end as well as in the middle, leaving flat surfaces where desired. It sells on the Web for a little less than $500.

Ikea prides itself on having a number of space-saving items that often have multiple purposes. An armless chair in denim with side pockets to hold a cell phone can become a twin bed. A birch coffee table comes with cushions that, when removed, leave a storage space. A frame holds a trundle bed that, with mattress removed, is equally useful for storage.

Architects in urban areas are among the most notable experimenters, sometimes creating whole apartments or lofts with folding components that have a built-in “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” effect.

With the help of an interior designer, Miami architect Rene Gonzalez recently created an entire room that folds out for a Manhattan loft owner who wanted to live with as much open space as possible. Sliding rosewood panel doors hide a bar, a nightstand and a bathroom. The guest bed is a trundle version that slides out into a separate area on the other side of the panel wall.

Whether done with rooms or objects, disguise is possible through the use of components that fold, lift or slide. Hinges, screws and springs are basic functioning parts.

The famous Murphy bed, first patented around 1900 by William L. Murphy in California, set a certain standard in this category that has been interpreted in numerous ways since then. Eric Jenkins, assistant dean at Catholic University’s architecture school, some years ago built himself a bed that had rotating legs and, when pushed up into the wall, turned into a shelf. He calls it “a bed-cupboard.” Another treatment of the basic Murphy design allows it to double as a desk.

The Murphy has become something of a generic design, although the company is careful to control the use of its name. More Space Place on Arlington’s Pentagon Row, which has the right to use the title “America’s Murphy Bed Store,” offers an assortment of choices in materials and styles.

The traditional Murphy bed is hidden behind folding doors. A Metropolitan pulls down with the bed as one complete panel, and a Jefferson drops down behind a sliding wall cabinet with shelving. Safe Harbor is a horizontal Murphy bed that drops down out of a cabinet whose height is determined by the size of the bed: twin, full or queen.

The difference between these and a simple fold-up bed or mattress is the quality of materials, including the quality of the mattress, say store owners Kathleen and John Long. Installation is crucial, they point out, because it requires a careful balancing of springs and weight. Done correctly, the bed can be lifted up and brought down with one hand.

“People want to make the most of their space and not have a cluttered look,” Mrs. Long says, giving reasons why consumers are drawn to the Murphy bed and similar interior devices.

Prices, which include installation, range from $1,700 to $8,000 or more, depending on size and quality of the wood and mattress.

Lights can be put into the side or top panels, and, often, a framed picture can be hung in the wall space where the bed is stored. Depending on the size and model of the bed, sheets, pillows and quilts fold up along with the frame ” which means bed-making is optional.

Maria Kalinke, with Richard Williams Architects, began life in her Dupont-area condo with a futon. She graduated recently to a Murphy-style bed from the More Space Store for her 376-square-foot apartment, where she lives with her Chihuahua, Lupe. Folded up with the addition of some cabinets from Ikea, it looks like a kitchen cabinet, she says.

“I just have to make sure Lupe isn’t in there,” she says. Lupe loves the bed, too.

Kube Architect’s Janet Bloomberg recently was involved in a custom bed project installed in a media room ” part of a modern-style makeover of an entire Riggs Place NW row house.

“The owners wanted everything to be minimal, so [the bed] will have a single cherry wood panel that folds down, giving the effect of a platform bed,” she says. The queen-size bed is smaller than the attached panel by eight inches. Cabinets above the bed will contain recessed lighting.

Hardwood Artisans, custom cabinetmakers in the Washington area, confirms that the beds are selling very well as specialty items. Builders have begun to incorporate them into new homes.

“Some people want a room with a double function,” says company official Larry Sphinx, “and they suit a lot of condos for efficiency.”

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