In the bedroom

Los Angeles Times Magazine
Feb. 10, 2002

The bedroom. Most of us have one. Some of us even like our bedrooms, which is fortunate since we all spend so much time in them. They are where we peruse magazines, watch Leno (or sneak in the guilty pleasure of Martha Stewart), work out and gab on the phone with friends. We groom the cat, sort the laundry and fret over the next day's appointments. And we also sleep, lying inert through a good third of our lifetimes--or more for some of us.

If you have a bedroom, you also have a bedroom style, know it or not. It's your own personal world view of the sleeping quarters, and these days it can help define you. One camp insists that the space fulfill its traditional functions and nothing more. Adherents of this belief sleep and maybe make love there and get out; their furnishings and decor tend to the spare and no-nonsense.

These days, though, many people like to watch films or surf the Web in comfort, so they equip the room with a bit more utilitarian detailing. A flat-screen Sony and DVD player shouldn't sit on the floor, after all. For others, the idea of electronics invading the inner sanctum is almost sacrilegious. For these purists the bedroom signifies a haven, a cloister where they escape from the day's noise and veg out on high-count Egyptian cotton sheets and luxuriant comforters. These boudoirs overflow with pretty things and are, foremost, private enclaves.

They could not be more different in style from those bedrooms treated as an integral wing of the home's public area, a second family room to gather in and watch TV or talk with children and friends. These rooms demand seating for visitors and perhaps a good sound system. Or any combination of the above.

The bedroom today can be anything you want it to be, a trend that I've encountered through trial and error over the past year. Locked into an extensive home remodeling project that would force me to examine my own wishes for the bedroom, I found it's a jungle out there. There are no rules anymore; bedrooms are allowed to suit the personality and needs of the occupants. This leads to a provocative question: What does your bedroom say about you? And the even more troubling query: What does my bedroom say about me?

To be fair, I should point out that it's not just my bedroom. It is our bedroom, and its personality would be shaped as much by the laws of marital harmony (and budgetary restraint) as by my selfish desires.

As wives with a honed creative sense often do, my spouse was possessed of passionate wishes for her--that is our--bedroom. It wasn't quite like Monica on "Friends" shooting down Chandler's demand for a big yellow "merge" sign over their newly shared bed; I'm not that style-deficient. Let's say, however, that we each made some compromises.

First, though, we each had to inquire of our inner bedroom muse. It fell to our architect and friend, Lisa Landworth of the mid-Wilshire firm of Landworth DeBolske Associates, to abet our search for the ideal, affordable, doable bedroom. She began with the news that, in our case, the city of Los Angeles' zoning code would have some input too; due to insufficient setback from the house next door, our new lair would be on the small side--with less open floor space than in our previous bedroom, but potentially better, she assured us. Now, if we could just inform her which school of design we align with.

Separate closets or together? A tub and a shower? Warm carpet or cold hardwood? TV hookup or not? If you think it's easy to define yourself neatly, think again.

Lisa had a client, a film editor, who does everything in his bedroom--"literally from his bed," she says--and who needed his remodel to accommodate that fact of life. She had to install a wall that would house his editing machinery plus TV, VCR, stereo, cassettes and CDs. This is a man who keeps 10 remotes by his bed. Clearly not our style.

She has been asked to equip bedrooms with sinks, mini-bar refrigerators and furniture arrays based on the focus-group stylings of fine hotels. "Some people who travel a whole lot just have a good feeling about hotels. They would like their whole house to look like a Ritz-Carlton," Lisa says. Hmm. We adore traveling, but that isn't us.

This was harder than we thought, and with much at stake. We had stretched financially to pull off this whole-house remodel and knew we would have to live with this bedroom for a long time. Trouble was, there were so many ways to go.

Think of some famous bedrooms and how they reflect the life and manners of the person in residence. Television's best-known bedroom right now is probably Carrie Bradshaw's on HBO's "Sex and the City." Hers is part New York babe's seduction nest, painted a soothing celery green (with an iridescent lavender wash to make it pop on television) with an inviting wide and typically unmade bed dressed in white Calvin Klein sheets and a gray cover.

The Bradshaw bedroom is also an Upper East Side fashionista's salon, strewn with the latest magazines and her prized Manolo Blahnik shoes. Her bed also serves part time as the desk of a newspaper sex columnist on deadline, so there is a telephone and, sometimes, a PowerBook flipped open on the duvet. No tips for us there; we were going for something a little more dignified, and we definitely prefer to keep work out of the bedroom as much as possible. However, mixing eclectic uses into the sanctified space of the bedroom is not such a modern concept.

Thomas Jefferson's private quarters at Monticello were a marvel of Revolutionary-era multi-tasking. From his French-inspired alcove bed he could stand up to the left into the bedroom or to the right into his cabinet, or study, where he performed experiments and tallied his daily weather observations. A loft closet tucked in the wall above the bed held his clothes. Like in today's extravagant master suites, Jefferson had his own privy at hand, though without the benefit of an electrically warmed seat or jet flush, or even hot running water. Large windows and skylights and an obelisk clock stationed at the bed's foot helped him stay true to his early-up principle: "Whether I retire early or late, I rise with the sun."

Legend has it that Jefferson never slept late in 50 years. That madness would not be a factor in our deliberations. We often loll in bed well past sunup, so the room should be inviting in the daylight as well as at night. My demands on that point are simple--lots of sunshine and fresh air and a comfortable bed with a good reading lamp I can burn at 2 a.m. without feeling guilty about the glare.

My wife's longings are closer to those of Los Angeles designer extraordinaire Rose Tarlow, who prescribes fashioning the bedroom into an intensely personal refuge. "It's the one place in the house where you can put yourself into it. Every other room you have to share," says Tarlow, whose clientele has included David Geffen and Eli Broad.

Tarlow designs fabric, wallpaper and furniture, and in her own bedroom in Bel-Air she surrounds herself with things she likes: books, beautiful blankets and whatever else she might need to feel properly cocooned if, for instance, she has to spend a week in bed with the flu. "I can live in there," she says. Her bedroom is designed both as private sanctuary and as a place for conversing and entertaining visitors. So it includes comfortable seating.

"The bedroom is for sleeping, but it is also a meeting place," says Tarlow, whose book "The Private House" was published in November by Clarkson Potter.

The Venice home of therapist S. Scott Mayers takes the open bedroom concept to an extreme. The bed, a bath and a walk-in closet take up an entire early 1900s cottage set in a secluded garden with a rambling deck, hanging lamps and fountains. French doors that swing onto the deck are seldom shut in good weather so that Mayer and his friends and party guests invariably drift from the adjacent cottage into the bedroom, furnished with designer chairs, a plump bed and surround-sound speakers for movie watching. A small refrigerator relieves Mayers and his visitors of the need to walk outside to the adjacent cottage containing the kitchen and living room.

"People congregate in this room as much as they do in the living room," Mayers says of the bedroom cottage. "In terms of entertaining, it's just another room. People are very comfortable piling on the bed."

He enjoys sharing the entire compound with visitors, but the bedroom is also his personal retreat, made homey with cherry-finished Douglas fir floors, strategically placed sheepskins and a generous fireplace. Oil paintings and collectibles (including a shelf of wooden nutcrackers) adorn the walls. Around a corner from the bed is a lushly worn leather chair and a bookcase of his favorite fiction.

Los Angeles designer Barbara Barry is such a proponent of bedroom serenity that she likes to create rooms that are blank spaces, visually and aurally. In her own bedrooms, she banishes artwork (and, of course, TV) from view and favors simple fabrics with subtle patterns and colors. Her lines of fine linens are named "Serene Stripe" and "Peaceful Pique" to reflect the desire for tranquillity.

"My bed is the center of my universe and I want it to be perfectly delicious," Barry says. "If you wrap yourself in soft bed linens, wearing even softer pajamas, and you fall asleep enveloped by that softness, perhaps you will remember that as hard as life is, it can be balanced by gentleness."

That's all great, but for most of us the bedroom has to do double or triple duty. It can't just be a place to unwind. So we make choices, hoping to achieve a blend of style and usefulness that we can enjoy for years. Our personal advisors were of mixed minds.

Landworth, whose late father, William V. Landworth, was the project architect for the Beverly Prescott Hotel and designed Don the Beachcomber, has a pair of desks in her room but no television, by mutual decision with her professor husband. It's intended as a cozy place to read and talk, with French doors leading to a deck to connect with the outdoors. She admitted that her ideal bedroom would include a private dressing room-cum-parlor, where she could retreat to read in peace. In fact, she explained, the most common request of remodelers, besides a new kitchen, is a master suite with a bathroom and ample closets, preferably separate ones. Food for thought.

Our friend Susan, a fashion designer who has moved into bed linens, recently created a bedroom of such simple elegance that my wife would be overjoyed simply to re-create it. It features a platform bed, sisal-look carpet, a soft armless chair and a gorgeous window view into a Pasadena canyon. Yet we would need our own look, something that says Us. To help assess my own innate style, I signed on to the House Beautiful Web site and took an online quiz called "What's Your Sleeping Style?" After responding that I prefer being naked to wearing silk pajamas, like to snooze with open windows and would opt for the tunes of Marvin Gaye over recorded nature sounds or James Taylor, I was pronounced a "Free-Spirited Sleeper": My decorating style was found to be "complex and hard to pigeonhole"--as any woman I've lived with could have testified--and I was advised to "remember that too much clutter and confusion can overstimulate your senses, making it tougher to unwind."

Yeah, I know. In all of my previous bedrooms, the bedside stand and the floor around it collected inked-in crosswords, scribbled notes and partially read New Yorkers not always of the current year. Books get finished and gradually move down in the pile, but rarely onto a shelf. My wife's side also supports a formidable library, only somewhat more neatly stacked.

In this new bedroom, we've both resolved to keep down the clutter. That's because with just a bit over three feet of clearance on either side of our bed, the reading material and discarded clothes would quickly devour us. We could have gone bigger, but it would have cost us one of the most beguiling features of our newly completed home. It sits just high enough on a Mar Vista slope that, while lying in bed on a haze-free day, we can gaze 23 miles across the basin to Mt. Wilson. On those few mornings when snow shimmers on the San Gabriels, the trade-off looks pretty good. Opening the bedroom onto a deck to take advantage of the view and morning sun was a no-brainer for us. So was adding to the glass area, building in large aluminum casement windows that begin close to the floor. On other design points, it turns out we are a lot like most of you. We wanted a master bedroom suite where we can close the door on the family and be apart, or throw the door open and hang out.

Lisa managed to give us the view and to fit in a walk-in closet and a full bathroom (with an oversized China Lotus slate shower for me and an airy bathtub under a window for her). A laundry closet is a few steps away. It's all of modest size but allows privacy when we need it. Into this skeleton we added tight-weave carpets over the wood floors and, to further reduce the clutter, moved our dressers into the closet. The only furniture out in the room, other than the bed and small night tables, will likely be a simple chair and a low credenza that can hold flowers, candles and the phone. We sank separately controlled can lights in the ceiling over each side of the bed so that we don't even need free-standing lamps. We're undecided on the great TV question; there's a cable outlet all wired in and ready to go, but for now no set.

Like most 21st century bedrooms, ours borrows from many style idioms. All it truly says about us, I guess, is that we wanted the bedroom for ourselves and not to impress anyone else. We love our bedroom, and that's all you can ask.

© Los Angeles Times 2002