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Murphy’s back: The bed that’s better than ever

The Murphy bed, that retro and notoriously uncomfortable design feature that was a permanent fixture in homes in the early 20th century – and has been used as a comedic trope from The Three Stooges to Frasier – is back. The first time I encountered a Murphy bed was at my aunt's miniscule Milan apartment in the early 1980s. I was immediately intrigued by its Narnia-like concept and its resemblance to the whimsical contraptions of intelligent design that were so prominent in The Jetsons.

Then I slept on it and all the romance of futuristic furniture faded, leaving in its place an overtired kid with a sore back. As it turned out, the bed of the future was hard and lumpy.

Thankfully, today's versions are infinitely more comfortable. "These aren't your grandmother's Murphy beds," says Seamus James Butterly, sales and showroom manager of Resource Furniture Toronto, which carries the Italian brand Clei. "These are next-level beds that are streamlined, contemporary and very comfortable."

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Without a doubt, Clei beds are more James Bond than Curly Howard. Innovations like slatted bases made with anodized aluminum, beach wood frames and thick, plush mattresses make them supremely comfortable. Design features have come a long way, too, transforming the beds into pieces of furniture that can either seamlessly fit into your existing décor or double as a dining table, desk or sofa. While the starting price for a Clei Murphy bed is $5,000, top-of-the-line features like a feather down mattress, and leather and wood finishings, can bring the price point up to a whopping $18,000. Apparently that hasn't deterred sales, which Butterly says have doubled every year since 2011.

"These are for people with means," he says. "We sell them mostly to boomers and empty nesters who have moved from their 5,000-square-foot homes in the suburbs to a 2,000-square-foot condo in the city. When their grandkids visit, they don't want them sleeping on a lumpy sofa bed."

Andrew Wencer, showroom manager of Space Solutions in Toronto says sales of their in-house custom made Murphy beds have increased from two per month five years ago to two per week today.

"More condos have smaller living spaces these days," he says, which has been driving demand. Recently, he installed a Murphy bed in a 300-square-foot condo in downtown Toronto. "It was basically a room with a kitchen in the corner and a bathroom."

The condo description is very similar to creator William Lawrence Murphy's apartment in turn-of-the-century San Francisco. The story goes that Murphy was courting an opera singer and needed to transform his studio apartment into a parlour because it wasn't becoming for a woman to hang out in a man's bedroom in those days. Although folding beds existed at the time, he developed a pivot system and counter-balancing design that allowed it to be affixed to the doorjamb of a closet, and folded upward and out of sight.

Murphy beds were a hot item in the early part of the 20th century, especially in cities like San Francisco and New York, where burgeoning urbanization meant apartments were cramped and crammed with people. But as families started to move to the suburbs and had more space, the beds fell from favour. It's no surprise that with today's rising real estate prices and smaller condo footprints, they've come back.

"I have one in my home and have installed them in clients' homes too," says Toronto-based interior designer Patti Rosati.

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"They're great, very practical and allow for an interesting design feature in a room. They come in handy in small spaces where the homeowner prefers to use the second bedroom as an office but wants the option to have guests stay overnight."

Don't be surprised if you find them in hotels, either. Upscale properties like Estérel Resort in Québec, Château Beauvallon in Mont Tremblant and Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa in British Columbia have replaced the requisite pullout sofa with a Murphy bed. They're even being installed in some university residences as a space-saving solution – an especially poignant turn of events when you consider that university dorms used to be the domain of futons. It would seem intelligent design prevails.

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