BAINBRIDGE ISLAND – The waterbed was just a concept in a San Francisco art gallery, and Charles Hall was just a young graduate student floating an idea back in 1968.
Half a century, a popular subculture icon and a successful design career later, Hall wakes up on his most famous design each morning with a million-dollar view of Puget Sound and downtown Seattle.
Today he's taking another go at the waterbed, hoping it's on the verge of a comeback.
Hall, now a resident of Bainbridge Island, plans to launch a redesigned waterbed later this year. It’s a rethink of his original design from 50 years ago that removes all its negative aspects and keeps its positives, he said.
Gone is the wooden frame that made the older beds so hard to get out of, exchanged for a foam collar that surrounds the water bladder. Spandex covers the top of the mattress to give a floating sensation. A fiber insert quells waves and keeps the water bladder still. An updated temperature system keeps the water feeling just right.
“It’s a better experience all around,” Hall said.
His famous bed first launched on the West Coast all those years ago, but his new bed will launch across the country on its eastern shore. The bed will first go to a test market in a chain of Florida furniture stores later this spring or summer, before it hopefully rolls out more broadly, he said. A bed-in-a-box version you can set up yourself might also go up for sale online, Hall said.
Queen- and king-sized mattresses will be available, and a complete bed system will sell for about $2,000, he said.
Fifty years ago, Hall’s original concept began as a chair filled with a viscous cooking starch. The chair weighed about 300 pounds, the starch didn’t flow well and it was difficult to get out of, Hall said, so he abandoned the idea in favor of the bed that would launch his design career.
The idea was that it would offer better support and a temperature system that would approximate the body’s skin temperature to help a person relax and get better sleep, he said.
“A waterbed is about as pure a concept as you can get,” Hall said. “Your body is 90-some-percent water anyway, what you’re doing in an environment before you’re born is water.”
While he was touting its practical benefits, the undulating bed took off for other reasons amid the counterculture movement and sexual revolution of the 1970s. Sellers and buyers saw a sensuous appeal: Phrases like “Pleasure is a waterbed” and “Two things are better on a waterbed – one of them is sleep” began to show up on advertisements.
“The sexy part drove it for quite awhile,” Hall said. “People would look at it and they’d see this wiggle and they’d say, ‘Ooh, that’s going to be great for sex.’ That sold an awful lot of waterbeds. Then when people slept on them, they said, ‘Hey, that’s actually comfortable.’”
He laments how his product has been portrayed in movies and TV shows, where they’d always seem to be a joke, exploding or springing a leak. The sloshing got people’s attention, but it was just a sideshow, Hall said.
Waterbeds reached their heyday in the 1980s before sales tapered off. Hall moved on to other design projects, like inflatable kayaks and a solar-heated shower for campers, he said, but returned to the concept in recent years with a few tweaks.
His friend, who runs the City Furniture chain in Florida that will initially carry the new beds, feels like it’s an idea whose time has come again, Hall said.
“I think that some people will have a memory of it and want to revisit it just because they remember waterbeds and want to see how different they are,” Hall said. “And then there’ll be a generation, it’ll be a total novelty for them.”