The bed that's in every room of the Westin Grand Hotel on M Street NW brings to mind the Grand Canyon -- or the princess and that pesky pea. A cross-section of the "Heavenly Bed," as it was dubbed at its introduction five years ago, shows that it has strata formed of sheets, duvets, pads, down, pillows and 900 individually wrapped coil springs.
Anita Philyaw could buy one through the hotel, but she's had it up to here with coils.
Instead, Philyaw, a nationally known artist who lives in the District, journeyed up Rockville Pike to visit her favorite bed, a Tempur-Pedic made of "viscoelastic," a type of "memory" foam developed for astronauts' seats. She plopped onto the bed as traffic whizzed by outside, closed her eyes and tried to get a sense of what it would be like to be in dreamland.
"Do you see how this mattress is molding itself to my shoulder?" she asked. "The bed I have now [an innerspring mattress] hurts my body -- it fights me. The only nonrenewable resource we have in our lives is time. And when I sleep badly, that's wasting time," said Philyaw, who would only describe herself as "of a certain age" -- but was around for her share of lumpy futons in the 1960s. She then told a salesman to place her $2,800 order for a king-size version to accommodate herself, her cat and reading material.
Philyaw said her desire for a new mattress blossomed after she slept on a Tempur-Pedic while on vacation. Still, her purchase made her part of a national craze.
The craze isn't just about foam. It's not even just about mattresses, though they're a big part of it. Sleep, sleeplessness and expensive beds are all the buzz right now. Why? Because of news reports about how stressed-out Americans don't get enough shut-eye. Because lots of people with money to burn have decided that they are mad at their mattresses and they're not going to take it anymore. Because creaky bones and the one-third of life that humans spend unconscious are marvelous marketing opportunities. It's also true that spending thousands on a better night's sleep is easier to justify than spending them on, say, a convertible.
Philyaw is a case in point. She said she thinks her offending mattress isn't kaput, still would be fine for someone else -- but. "I might gain three days a month [on the Tempur-Pedic]! I might paint a masterpiece in the time I'd be tossing and turning in the bed I have at home."
Although lots of age groups are getting picky about where they slumber, manufacturers, retailers and trend-watchers say it is primarily the moneyed portion of 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964 -- the baby boomers -- who are fueling a jump in sales of pricey bedroom accouterments.
"Everything related to sleeping is big, especially luxury mattresses and pillows, thanks to baby boomers who are now more interested in their health and . . . [can] splurge on the best of the best for their aching backs, their rest, their well-being," said Reinier Evers, whose company, Trendwatching.com, monitors consumer products, business and trends.
"Maturialism" is what Evers calls boomers' eagerness for -- and lack of compunction about -- purchasing a wide spectrum of creature comforts, such as restaurant-grade stoves, hot tubs, professional-grade power tools, flat-screen televisions and even designer dog beds.
Purveyors of bedding -- sheets, duvets, comforters, featherbeds -- also are benefiting from the focus on sleep. And, where once there was a mere pillow, there now are specialty pillows piled high.
At the Cotton House Resort on Mustique Island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, a "pillow menu" is placed on every bed. It contains 11 drawings and descriptions of pillows -- including a butterfly shape, a body pillow, neck roll, snore-stopper, half moon, maternity and buckwheat-hull. Simonique Jack, a manager at the resort, e-mailed to say that 95 percent of her guests choose an extra pillow from the menu.
And, of course, when you sleep on a $3,000 bed, it would be silly to have scratchy sheets.
Until the 1980s, most middle-class homemakers used simple muslin sheets with thread counts (an indication of how tightly woven a material is) from 140 to 180 threads per inch. But in the early 1980s -- about when Martha Stewart's first line of sheets appeared in Kmarts -- Egyptian and Pima cotton sheets with thread counts of 400 began to be seen in upscale stores. Now even middle-class homemakers are on the prowl for sheets with thread counts approaching 800 -- even though a high thread count doesn't necessarily mean it is the best sheet.
Where some see a national preoccupation, others suspect delusion, especially when it comes to mattresses.
Rafael Pelayo is a neurologist at the Sleep Disorder Clinic at Stanford University's School of Medicine. He says that companies that make or sell mattresses sponsor most of the "science" or "clinical studies" that support the notion that sleep is improved by a new mattress. He also noted that mattress retailers cannily air TV commercials late at night, during the hours when insomniacs are flipping the channels, vulnerable to anything they are told will put them to sleep.
But there's no denying the rush to better bedding. It's in the numbers:
The International Sleep Products Association, a trade group, reports that nearly 20 percent of American mattresses sold in 2003 cost at least $1,000. In 2000, 15.5 percent cost that much. The top 25 bedding retailers increased their 2002 sales of $3.02 billion to $3.37 billion in 2003 -- an 11.7 percent increase.
Stearns & Foster, the luxury arm of Sealy Inc., sold $250 million worth of mattress sets in 2003 compared with $35 million in 1994.
In August, Latex Foam International announced the construction of two new plants -- for a total of four in the United States -- that will make so-called Talalay foam. Tempur-Pedic is breaking ground on its second U.S. plant, a $90 million facility in New Mexico. (The company has plants in Duffield, Va., and in Denmark.) And on Friday, King Koil became the first bedding manufacturer to announce a program that will allow customers to design their own beds from a menu of coils, encased coils, polyurethane core, viscoelastic foam, latex foam -- and more.
In addition to product innovations, retailers and manufacturers are finding ways to enhance customers' bed-buying experiences, which many people have long dreaded with an intensity equal to that of buying a car.
The Heavenly Bed, for example, is one example of a partnership between the Simmons Corp., which began selling 95-cent mattresses made with coils in 1876, and Westin Hotels, owned by Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
In four years, Westin hotels in the United States and Canada have sold former guests 4,000 of the "Heavenly Bed" setups, which cost about $3,000 for an entire ensemble; and 30,000 of its feather pillows ($65 to $75 each). During a recent sales promotion, "the phones were ringing off the hooks," said Bill Yetman, director of sales and marketing for the two Westins in Washington.
Sheraton Hotels, also part of Starwood, sells its Sweet Sleeper beds and bedding to former guests through a toll-free telephone number. And Tempur-Pedic has its own partnerships. Its Web site sends potential customers to a selection of hotels around the country -- the Hyatt Regency in Washington, plus two Holiday Inn properties in Fredericksburg and Williamsburg -- where they can buy themselves a night of sleep on the foam mattress.
This relatively new kind of symbiosis allows hotel guests to "test drive" products from beds to lighting to showerheads to hand lotions -- and then buy the products for their homes. It also allows companies to pitch their products in a relaxed and sometimes luxurious atmosphere.
About four years ago, Moen Inc. asked the Marriott Courtyard across the street from its North Olmsted, Ohio, headquarters to let the faucet company test out its Revolution Massaging Showerhead in some of the guest rooms. Consumer reaction was so positive, the company said, that the hotel asked Moen to let it sell the showerhead right at the front desk before it was released to the market at large. The Revolution was introduced through Home Depot stores in late 2001.
But sleep is what boomers are really jazzed about. And Stanford's Pelayo thinks marketing it through hotels is brilliant.
"It turns out," he said. "that one of the features of having chronic insomnia is that you sleep better away from your own home. When you have insomnia, it is in the back of your mind that tomorrow depends on how well you sleep tonight," he said. Away from your own bedroom, which rapidly becomes a torture chamber, you don't have the same pressure to sleep.
Pelayo said countless people who sleep well in hotels say: " 'That's it. I must need a better mattress.' They buy one and when the family asks how it is, they rave about it. Well, what are you going to say after you've spent $4,000 on a mattress?"
Pelayo said the Stanford clinic does not endorse any brand of mattress because there is no evidence that any one works better than another. He said that so-called "sleep-number" beds, in which a person can adjust the firmness of a mattress, appeal mightily to insomniacs because "they tend to be compulsive and perfectionist. Having something to control makes them feel better. But this never seems to work in a sustained fashion."
"Sleeping problems are purely behavioral or physical. The bottom line is that unless you have a chronic disease, your sleeping surface doesn't matter as much as people often think it does," Pelayo said.
Jeffrey Rehm does research into sleep at a clinic at Mary Washington Hospital in Fredericksburg. He said "sleep hygiene" -- not mattresses and linens -- is the most important element of getting a good night's rest. "That's an awful name for going to bed at the same time each night, avoiding alcohol -- things like that."
In fact, Rehm has no idea what types of mattresses are on the clinic's six beds.
Nonetheless, Peter Marino thinks the future of mattresses is in memory foam. People are just being introduced to it and they love it, he said.
Marino has been immersed in bedding for about 25 years. He is the author of "The Golden Rules of Selling Bedding" and "Stop Losing Those Bedding Sales!" published by Furniture World, a home furnishings magazine for retailers.
Marino said that foam-based mattresses are fast becoming cheaper to make than coiled systems. "Right now the placing of coils is virtually done by hand," he said.
Marino also has seen an increase in consumer knowledge and education about mattresses, although the old-fashioned belief that a hard mattress is the best for everyone is still a popular fallacy.
"We've learned a lot about sleep in the last 15 years and that is changing the industry," Marino said.
Jerry Epstein's concern wasn't mattresses or sheets, it was pillows that got hotter and more uncomfortable as the night wore on. He saw advertisements for the cutely named Chillow, a $25 pillow with a built-in pocket for water that is supposed to stay cool all night.
"I hate sleeping when I am hot, and this seemed like a really cool idea," said Epstein, a Washington lawyer whose wife prefers a tropical bedroom climate. He liked the Chillow and used it for about 10 days before he was defeated by the "difficult" task of getting all the air out of the pocket, filling it with water and making sure it was properly sealed.
It is now in a closet and Epstein is cuddling a pillow with no name.