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16 m2 Around the Bed

In this article published in our research magazine 'Asleep', we briefly retrace the history of the evolution of the bed and its environment, mainly in China and Europe, enriched by a series of our illustrations.



From the earliest ancestors of humanity, finding a place to take shelter from the wind and rain at night and sleep soundly became the most primitive yet fundamental condition for a dwelling or home. During our vulnerable and helpless moments while sleeping, the importance of home lies in providing shelter during our weakest times, and as a result, we develop an attachment to it, much like a child to their mother. The bed, in this analogy, becomes the loving arms of a mother, cradling us.



Around 200,000 years ago in caves in South Africa, early humans began laying grass on burnt aromatic plant ashes, making beds that were not only more comfortable and warm but also protected them from mosquito intrusions, marking the inception of the bed as we know it. Approximately 6,000 years ago at the Banpo archaeological site in China, we can glimpse the shadow of familiar beds with woven straw mats and silk-woven blankets. Throughout history, the bed has occupied the core of our dwellings, and the presence of a bed is what typically defines a living space. It serves not only as a sleeping space but also as a place for various activities during waking hours, closely intertwined with our way of life.



Following the timeline of history, we will narrate the stories of 17 different beds and the 16 square meters of space surrounding them, piece by piece, to reveal a glimpse of the panorama. This allows us to peer into the evolution of sleeping habits and lifestyles of people from different eras and cultures, spanning from Europe to China and from ancient times to the present day.


 



The Roman Domus Residence

From the 1st to the 9th century


A Domus is a type of Roman residence typically inhabited by wealthy individuals, and it usually has a relatively closed exterior. Most of the light comes from an inner courtyard, with rooms such as bedrooms and dining areas arranged around the courtyard. Each room could be enclosed with curtains, and only candlelight illuminated the mosaic floors and intricately painted walls. Beds were often constructed by weaving straps onto a wooden or bronze frame and then placing a mattress and pillows filled with wool or swan feathers on top.



In ancient Rome, beds served various purposes, not just for a typical night's sleep. There were "beds for bedrooms," finely decorated "wedding beds," and even wheeled beds used as medical beds. In this dining room, we see three "dining beds," where people reclined on the left side and ate with their right hand. Typically, there were three individuals, each with their own bed, and the middle position was considered the most prestigious.




Han Dynasty Official's Residence

2nd century



During the Han Dynasty, wealthy individuals or officials often resided in multi-courtyard homes, and the layout of front halls and rear rooms had already taken shape. In this room, the area around the bed served as an important place to receive guests. Mats were laid on the floor for guests to kneel on, while sitting on the bed symbolized a higher level of prestige. Due to safety considerations, windows were few, and curtains were commonly used as partitions within the room. The bed served as both a sleeping and seating arrangement.


The bed was typically about 20 centimeters in height, making it unsuitable for sitting with legs hanging down. People of that time still often knelt on mats, and when sitting on the bed, they used a curved-shaped support and backrest as armrests and back support. The back and one side of the bed were enclosed with wooden screens to provide protection from the wind.




French Loire Valley Castles

15th Century


From the Middle Ages to the 18th century in Europe, the bed was the most expensive item in a household. It was a symbol of the social prestige of the homeowner and placed in a corner of the room. Among the nobility, the bed was used by the husband and wife together. Rooms in castles often had fireplaces and antechambers near the entrance to ward off cold and dampness. At the top of the bed was a woven mat, later replaced by carpets in the 15th century. Sleepers would wear nightcaps to keep their heads warm. Above the bed, there was a fabric known as the "canopy" to prevent dust from falling and to block moonlight, which was considered inauspicious at the time, especially shining on one's face. The curtains surrounding the bed provided some privacy for those resting on featherbeds.


The material of the "mattress" reflected the homeowner's social status: the poor used straw, while the wealthy used duck feathers or goose feathers. When sleeping, the head rested on a pillow with four tufts, and most people slept in a sitting position. Beds were often pre-warmed before sleep, and it was strongly advised not to cover one's feet.




Jiangnan Literati Residences

13th Century



Due to the humid and hot climate of the South-East of China, this room from the Southern Song Dynasty features a frame structure without solid walls, with no clear boundaries between the interior and exterior. Screens, floor-to-ceiling lattice windows, and roll-up curtains were used as partitions between rooms, allowing for flexible adjustments. The homeowners prioritized comfort and natural scenery over privacy and security.



The presence of chairs in the room indicates a shift from kneeling to sitting with legs hanging down. The "Ta" (a type of low platform) was typically placed in the hall and served as the central piece of furniture in the room. It was slightly smaller than a bed and could be used for both sitting and lying down. It served as a resting place for the homeowners and a seating area for entertaining guests. The "Ta" was relatively lightweight and could be moved to different locations. It was covered with bamboo mats, and a low table was placed on one side to serve as a pillow. The wooden pillow and the bedding on the bed were different from today's comfort standards. The bedcover was made of silk, and during the winter, it was filled with silk. However, for most common households, they could only afford hemp blankets filled with cotton.





Versailles Palace King's Bedroom

18th Century


The king's bed played a significant role in the daily life of the palace. It served as the place where the king, like the sun, conducted the "rising" and "setting" ceremonies: The "rising" ceremony lasted for about an hour and involved six audiences arranged in order of the courtiers' ranks. In front of hundreds of people, the king would rise, wash, and then dress. The "setting" ceremony, on the other hand, was the final audience of the day, typically granted to a select few and seen as a privilege of those in attendance. The king would have lunch in bed during this ceremony and meet with ministers.



Every morning, Louis XIV would sit in bed, supported by pillows, to preside over carefully arranged meetings to assert his authority. To emphasize the king's majesty, the bed was piled with layers of mattresses, making it exceptionally high. This allowed the king to look down on the courtiers seated below, and the massive canopy further emphasized his authority. Because people at the time were still accustomed to sleeping with their heads elevated on pillows, the length of this bed might appear short by modern standards. On September 1, 1715, Louis XIV passed away in this bed.




Forbidden City Emperor's Bedchamber

18th Century



In the Forbidden City, there are two symmetrical rooms on either side of the Hall of Mental Cultivation that can serve as the Emperor's bedroom. These rooms are relatively small, measuring only a few square meters each, designed to better "concentrate energy." The beds on heated platforms and the kang-style stoves are typical ways in northern China to combat severe cold. This space belongs to the Emperor's private realm and is generally not used for receiving outsiders. Apart from sleeping and resting, official duties and meetings were usually conducted in other rooms. Even the consorts, including the Empress and concubines, slept separately in their own chambers.


The bed in the room is exclusively for the Emperor and has a long and narrow shape, symbolizing "longevity." The bed is integrated with the architecture and is positioned above a heated platform (kang) with three sides against the walls and one side covered by a bed curtain, creating a smaller enclosed space within the bedroom. Legend has it that Emperor Qianlong preferred using reed mattresses, and he also used blankets made of Tibetan antelope wool adorned with scripture inscriptions.




London Kensington District Residence

19th Century



During the Victorian era, many people departed from the previous practice of sleeping together in communal spaces. A revolutionary change was the introduction of connecting different rooms through public corridors outside the rooms, allowing each room to become truly independent, and privacy became possible. Here, the bedroom was dedicated solely to sleeping. It not only served as a private space for couples but also became the central room in a household. One essential piece of furniture was a comfortable armchair where the lady of the house could rest after her tiring household chores.



With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, the quality of beds greatly improved. The invention of coil springs in 1857, followed by a bedding patent in 1865, completely transformed mattresses. Beds typically had metal frames, equipped with horsehair padding and feather mattresses, and were layered with sheets, three blankets, a down comforter, and pillows.




Taiwan's Lin Antai Historical House

19th Century



This is a bedroom within a traditional Taiwanese courtyard house, serving as a relatively private living space for the master and mistress of the house. Besides the main entrance to the room, there is also a small door behind the bed leading to a rear corridor. During a time when traditional gender roles were more pronounced, women and children would use this back corridor to avoid crossing the main hall when receiving guests, as it was considered proper etiquette.



The canopy bed in the room is like a "room within a room" and stands as the most important and status-displaying piece of furniture in this space. The bed is surrounded by curtains, which serve two main purposes: blocking out light and obscuring the view for privacy. In addition, during the summer, the curtains could be used to hang mosquito nets, while in the winter, thicker covers could be added for warmth.




E1027 Villa in Southern France

1930s



In the bedroom of this villa designed by Eileen Gray, we witness fundamental changes in aesthetics: steel begins to replace wood, furniture discards ornamentation in favor of pure lines and basic elements. With the technological, social, and cultural transformations following the Industrial Revolution, architects and designers sought a new modern design language, with the Bauhaus School being a prominent representative. Running water and bathrooms became a part of every household, and soon, washbasins replaced washbasins in bedrooms. Before this, taking a hot bath before bed every night was hard to imagine.



Beds produced through industrialization took on an exceptionally simple form. They were no longer laden with status symbols but focused on providing comfort. The basic form of the beds we use today was largely established during that era.




Shikumen Lane Room in Shanghai

1930s


Early 20th-century Shanghai was densely populated, and the owners of Shikumen houses often rented out the smallest and least desirable rooms known as "Tingzijian" to tenants. These rooms were quite small and faced in unfavorable directions. For tenants, this room served as their entire living space, excluding the kitchen and bathroom.



The furnishings in the room clearly show Western influences, such as the upright wardrobe and Western-style tables and chairs. More importantly, the room was equipped with electric lighting, enriching the nightlife. To save space and costs, the bed in the room became quite simple, and the raised bed frame allowed for storage underneath. Cotton pillows and quilts on the bed were already quite common at that time.




German Modern Integrated Apartment

1970s



In German modern integrated apartments from the 1970s, we see a small living room/bedroom combination: an independent bed with a headboard and a desk. In 1950s Europe, the bed was primarily a place for sleeping and resting, and that was it. However, by the 1960s and 1970s, we can observe a "bedification" of entire apartments: sofas suddenly became soft and large, and the bed area also expanded. This change aligned with the evolving understanding of the body during that era.



Memory foam (initially developed by NASA in 1966) increased the comfort of beds. The introduction of down comforters from Scandinavia in the 1970s changed the way beds were made, eliminating the need for layer upon layer of sheets and blankets.




Beijing ‘Tongzi’ Apartment

1960s



This is a typical collective dormitory building, influenced by Soviet-style architecture, and it was widely used in various parts of China for an extended period. In these collectively allocated residences, each household had a room, and each room was nearly identical. All family members lived in the same room, which served both as a sleeping space and a place for other family activities. The bathroom was shared with neighbors, and the common hallway was often used as a kitchen. Doors of each unit were typically left open, creating close-knit relationships among neighbors. Privacy clearly wasn't a concern during this era.



The beds in these rooms were also very simple. Wooden double beds without any decoration were common, with wooden boards covered by a layer of cotton batting. In the summer, bamboo mats were often placed on top of the beds for cooling. While the rooms had few decorations, the bedsheets and quilts often featured bright patterns. In this crowded space, besides being used for sleeping, the bed also served a role similar to today's sofas.




Berlin Family Residence

1990s



Posters of bands or celebrities, colorful paint, piles of stuffed toys; each room has a collection of youth imprints like talismans. In this era of popular culture, young people's bedrooms were more about how they arranged the space to express their identity and personality. They placed everything they owned there, listened to their music, and played video games. These collages have almost disappeared in today's digital age. At the same time, newly invented mattresses made of combination foam not only made beds lighter but also allowed for personalized customization based on the body's needs.




Chengdu Condominium Apartment

1990s


This room is the main living area of a condominium suite in Chengdu during the 1990s. The rise of commercial residential properties increased the living space for people. Families moved from single rooms to two or three-bedroom suites. Initially, in these suites, bedrooms were often quite large, while the living rooms were relatively small. Although the larger bedrooms remained important spaces for family activities and entertaining friends, children and parents could have separate rooms, and privacy gradually became more important even within the family.



Memory foam mattresses became a popular trend of that era, and the awakening of comfort and aesthetic needs led to the appearance of various decorative bedding sets. Electric blankets and regular blankets made the beds warmer. The presence of a television in the bedroom turned the bed into an entertainment hub. Watching TV before sleep became a new habit, and bedtime started to get later.




Contemporary Apartments

Today


Today, it's challenging to discern the regional differences in the appearance of bedrooms as a unified paradigm is widely used in both Eastern and Western cultures. Bedrooms have gradually become a personal and private space, and people no longer casually enter another person's bedroom, even among family members. Bedroom spaces have become smaller, and activities other than resting and sleeping have been moved to larger common areas within homes. Every aspect of room design is geared towards creating a more comfortable environment.



Entertainment before bedtime remains important, but in the digital age, there's no longer a need for bulkier entertainment facilities that take up space. Various smart devices have become compact, requiring only a power source near the bedside. Bed frames, mattresses, and bedding are essential components of a bed today, with standardized sizes and specifications. However, the variety of options has become unprecedentedly diverse, allowing individuals to find suitable products based on various functionalities and aesthetic preferences.


 

Every era, every region, and every person has different stories within their 16 square meters around their bed. These 15 spaces are clearly just 15 examples and cannot represent the complete history of bedrooms. However, from them, we can see that the sleeping space has never been constant. With the changes in technology, production methods, and culture, the way we sleep and our concepts of sleep have also evolved. Today, our requirements for comfort, privacy, cleanliness, and even the duration of sleep are not innate. We see that separate bedrooms only became common in the last century; before that, we often slept with family members or even strangers. Nightlife after sunset truly emerged after the invention of electric lighting, and our bedtime has gradually shifted later with technological advancements. Looking back to two or three decades ago, a chamber pot was a bedside essential, and soaking one's feet in hot water before bedtime was a great luxury. Yes, our sleeping environments are getting better, but ironically, our sleep quality is deteriorating.



We can certainly imagine a future with perfect bedrooms controlled by artificial intelligence and various sensors, customizing the ideal lighting, temperature, and ambiance for us at every moment and waking us up at the perfect time. However, history seems to tell us that those who use mattresses today may not sleep better than those who used straw mats in the past. This is not to deny that technological progress has improved our quality of life; it simply indicates that better material conditions do not necessarily equate to better sleep. There are many factors that affect sleep beyond the sleeping environment, such as going to bed at the right time, avoiding overly busy schedules, regular exercise, and truly making the 16 square meters around the bed a sanctuary for sleep.



The future 16 square meters by the bedside will not be a simple accumulation of technology. People living in major cities may face shrinking living spaces due to increasing urban populations, and our apartments may become versatile and multifunctional spaces. Superconnectivity to the internet and round-the-clock lifestyles may lead some people to no longer have fixed sleep times and places, and the 16 square meters around their sleep may not only be at home but also outdoors. The COVID-19 pandemic has made us realize that finding a place to sleep peacefully in the face of sudden disasters may be a luxury. Sleep cannot be simplified to just a matter of the bedroom; it is a broader theme. With various imaginations and curiosities about the future, as designers, we can't help but ask how design can improve tomorrow's sleep?


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