Place of work, protest, creativity, sexual gratification as well as slumber – the bed hosts myriad activities
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono married secretly in Gibraltar on 20 March 1969, the ceremony lasted only three minutes. But these minutes, so elaborately protected, were in fact the end of privacy. They promptly invited a global audience into their honeymoon bed, a week-long Bed-In for Peace held from 25 to 31 March, 9am to 9pm, in room 902 of the Amsterdam Hilton International Hotel. Two of the most public people in the world put themselves in a literal fish bowl – the glass box of the Hilton. But the work day didn’t end at 9pm. John and Yoko repeatedly declared that they wanted to conceive a baby during that week. The bed is both protest site and factory for baby production: a fucktory.
The bed becomes a media stage set when John Lennon and Yoko Ono hold a Bed-In for Peace from their honeymoon hotel room in Amsterdam in 1969. Image courtesy of Keystone pictures / ZUMA Press / Alamy
John and Yoko didn’t simply occupy the room. They redesigned it as a media stage set with a particular image in mind. They were in every sense the architects of that image. It is not by chance that the published images look so similar: practically only one angle was possible. They had emptied the usual Hilton room, removing all the furniture, artwork and decoration, leaving only the king-size bed, which they deliberately placed against the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, with a panoramic view onto the city of Amsterdam. With their back to the window, they faced inside the room in a kind of Loosian move – Loos always placed the couch against the window, with the occupants facing the interior and turned into a silhouette against the light for those entering the room. Their bodies against the light – in an all-white background, of white walls, white sheets, white pyjamas and white flowers – seemed to fly above the Dutch capital.
The hotel is in the city but detached, a transparent oasis. But what is outside? The background is Amsterdam, at the time the centre of Europe’s 1960s cultural and sexual revolution, the centre of experimentation with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, political activism and protest; against the Vietnam war, the local government and housing shortages, and in support of equal rights, abortion, and even alternative forms of transport.
‘If late capitalism is the end of sleep, the actions of the voluntary recluse are not so voluntary in the end’
The 24/7 bed of John Lennon and Yoko Ono anticipates the working bed of today. In what is probably now a conservative estimate, The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that 80 per cent of young New York City professionals work regularly from bed. The fantasy of the home office has given way to the reality of the bed office. The very meaning of the word ‘office’ has been transformed. Millions of dispersed beds are taking over from concentrated office buildings. The boudoir is defeating the tower. Networked electronic technologies have removed any limit to what can be done in bed. But how did we get here?
Industrialisation brought with it the eight-hour shift and the radical separation between the home and the office or factory, between rest and work, night and day. Post-industrialisation collapses work back into the home and takes it further into the bedroom and into the bed itself. The whole universe is concentrated on a small screen with the bed floating in an infinite sea of information. To lie down is not to rest but to move. The bed is now a site of action.
The recumbent employee has no need for legs. The bed is now the ultimate prosthetic and a whole new industry is devoted to providing contraptions to facilitate work while lying down – reading, writing, texting, recording, broadcasting, listening, talking and, of course, eating, drinking, sleeping, or making love, activities that seem to have been turned, of late, into work itself. Endless advice is dispensed on how to ‘work’ on your personal relationships, ‘schedule’ sex with your partner. Sleeping is definitely hard work too, for millions, with the psychopharmaceutical industry providing new drugs every year and an army of sleep experts advising on how to achieve this apparently ever-more elusive goal – all in the name of higher productivity, of course.
For Louis XIV, the bedroom was a place of ceremony. On 29 July 1664, Flavio Chigi, nephew of Pope Alexander VII, conveys to Louis XIV his uncle’s apologies concerning ill-treatment of French gentlemen in Rome. The interview is conducted in the king’s bedroom. Image courtesy of Chronicle / Alamy
This philosophy was already embodied in the figure of Hugh Hefner, who famously almost never left his bed, let alone his house. He literally relocated his office to his bed in 1960 when he moved into the Playboy Mansion at 1340 North State Parkway, Chicago, thereby turning the bed into the epicentre of a global empire, with his business attire taking the form of silk pyjamas and dressing gown. ‘I don’t go out of the house at all!!! … I am a contemporary recluse’, he told Tom Wolfe, guessing the last time he was out had been three and a half months before and that, in the previous two years, he had been out of the house only nine times. Playboy turned the bed into a workplace.
Hefner was not alone. The bed may have been the ultimate American office from mid-century. In a Paris Review interview in 1957, Truman Capote was asked, ‘What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?’ To which he answered: ‘I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and a coffee handy.’
Even architects set up office in bed. Richard Neutra started working the moment he woke up with elaborate equipment enabling him to design, write or even interview in bed. His bed in the VDL House in Silver Lake, LA, included two public phones, three communication stations for talking to other rooms in the house (the office below and even another office 500m away), three different call bells, drawing boards and easels that folded down over the bed, electric lights and a radio-gramophone controlled from a dashboard overhead. A bedside table on castors held the tape recorder, electric clock and storage compartments for drawing and writing equipment so he could, as he wrote to his sister, ‘use every minute from morning to late night’.
Edouard Manet’s insouciant, even confrontational, Olympia of 1863 shocked 19th-century audiences. It was inspired by Titian’s Venus of Urbino of 1538, although the subject in Manet’s rendition is commonly believed to be a sex worker. Image courtesy of World History Archive / Alamy.
From the mid-1950s on, the bed became increasingly sophisticated, outfitted with all sorts of entertainment and communication devices as a kind of control room. Postwar America inaugurated the high-performance bed as a hub of productivity, a new form of industrialisation that was exported globally and has now become available to an international army of dispersed but interconnected producers. A new kind of factory without walls is constructed by compact electronics and extra pillows for the 24/7 generation.
The kind of equipment that Hefner envisioned (some of which, like the answering machine, didn’t yet exist) is now expanded for the Internet and social-media generation. The Playboy fantasy of the nice girl next door is more likely realised today with someone on another continent – and it is anybody’s guess if she is real or an electronic construction. Does it matter? As in the recent film Her, a moving depiction of life in the soft, uterine state that is a corollary to our new mobile technologies, the ‘her’ in question is an operating system that turns out to be a more satisfying partner than a person. The protagonist lies in bed with Her, chatting, arguing, making love and eventually breaking up, still in bed.
If, according to Jonathan Crary, late capitalism is the end of sleep, colonising every minute of our lives for production and consumption, the actions of the voluntary recluse are not so voluntary in the end. The 19th-century division of the city between rest and work may soon become obsolete. Not only have our habits and habitat changed with the internet, but predictions about the end of human labour in the wake of new technologies and robotisation that were already being made at the end of the 19th century are no longer treated as futuristic.
After a bus accident in 1925 left 18-year-old Frida Kahlo in a full body cast for months and extreme pain, which plagued her for the rest of her life, her mother designed a special easel for her so she could paint in bed
The end of paid labour and its replacement with creative leisure was already envisioned in utopian projects of the 1960s and ’70s by Constant, Superstudio and Archizoom, including hyperequipped beds. Think, for example, of Michael Webb’s Cushicle and Suitaloon of 1964-67, in which the electronically enhanced bed for sex and work is also one’s clothing, house and vehicle. If we are already living in the 24/7, facing the imminent prospect of life without work, shouldn’t architects return to the question of the bed and the new city it implies? Isn’t sleep an architectural question?
Meanwhile the city has started to redesign itself. In today’s attention-deficit-disorder society, we have discovered we work better in short bursts punctuated by rest. Special self-enclosed beds have been designed for office spaces and many companies, such as MetroNaps, now provide sleeping pods in the office to maximise productivity. Bed and office are never far apart in the 24/7 world. These compact sealed capsules, mini-spaceships, can be used in isolation or gathered together in clusters, lined up in rows for synchronised sleep, understood as a part of work rather than its opposite. As Arianna Huffington predicts ‘“recharging rooms” will be as common as board rooms’. But these relaxation spaces and technologies are not simply appearing inside offices. Whole new types of building dedicated to sleep are popping up in cities: in a kind of parallel to love hotels but without the sex, you can rent a single-occupancy pod for a minimum of 30 minutes to recharge your batteries. The question of the bed has become an urban question. New kinds of intimacy are generating new architectures.
From “Pijama Party: what we do in bed” by Beatriz Colomina on The Architectural Review, Essays, 20 March 2019