Futons- Overview and Brief History:
Historically, the term ‘futon’ refers to the traditional style of Japanese bedding consisting of a padded flat mattress stuffed with cotton and quilts. They are pliable enough to be folded and stored away during the day, allowing the sleeping room to be used for other purposes. The traditional Japanese futons are thin, generally only two to three inches thick. The bedding that the word futon refers to consists of a shikibuton (bottom mattress) and a kakebuton (thick quilt bedcover). Additionally, parts of a futon can include a blanket (mofu), a lighter summer blanket (taoruketto), and a pillow (makura) often filled with beans, buckwheat chaff, or plastic beads. Japanese futons are designed to be placed on tatami flooring, and traditionally are folded and stored in a closet during the day, allowing the tatami to breathe and flexibility of room use. Futons need to be aired in sunlight regularly, especially if not stored during the day. The Japanese also ‘beat’ their futons regularly using a ‘futon tataki’, a special tool usually made from bamboo, and is similar to a western carpet beater.
The ‘Western’ futon is based on the Japanese version, but with several major differences. It is almost always placed on some type of configurable wood or metal frame that serves to allow for a dual use as a bed and a chair or couch. Typically, the frame folds in the middle, allowing for use as a couch, and then flattens for use as a bed. It is generally filled with foam as well as batting, many times several layers, and is often thicker than the typical Japanese variety, resembling a western mattress in size. Western-style futons are often an alternative to a bed or other furniture, and are often sold in sets that include a mattress and a frame. Normally futons have a removable and replaceable cover giving them more versatility.
In the 1970’s, a Boston area furniture designer, William Brouwer, became convinced that the futons adaptability would work well in America, especially in the small apartments that were common in the area he lived. At that point the ‘hide-a-way’ bed was the primary option for a convertible type of bed, but they were uncomfortable and difficult to move and convert. The futon was lighter and easier to move and more comfortable, but needed to be adapted to fit the American need which is to be off the floor. American generally prefer to sit and sleep while raised up off the floor.
Brouwer set about designing a futon that would appeal to the sensibilities of the American public and ended up with a bed frame that looked a lot like a standard height bed. Brouwer’s design, the Brouwer bed, was made in three parts, which could be slid together to convert in to a wide chair or couch. The bed styling was modern, elegant, and well crafted with fine woods, with wooden slats to support the mattress and actually ended up winning a national design award. The futon makers in the local Boston area created mattresses using layers of cotton fiber that were shorter, curlier, and less expensive than the traditional Japanese mattresses and thus ended up being about twice as thick as the Japanese shikibutons.
Soon there were futons being designed in other parts of American and the world using variations of Brouwers ‘tri-fold’ design and other ‘bi-fold’ designs that looked more like conventional couches. Over time, it has become apparent that there is literally no limit to the elegance or styles that can be created for futons, from traditional 19th century European designs to modern, metal and mixed wood/metal options.
Contemporary futons found on the market today may be more sophisticated, elegant, and comfortable than those past, but the ideas of simplicity and versatility can still be seen. Futons offer the simple convenience of sitting and sleeping without taking up a lot of space and can be found in stores ranging from IKEA to fine furniture showrooms.