IF LIFE IS not a bed of roses, today many people will be satisfied with just the bed.
Sensuous style, decorating for love, romantic decor -- whatever you call it, is suddenly a major preoccupation in design. For years, the kitchen was the room all the money went into, then the bath, then the greenhouse. Today people are thinking about the bedroom.
For a while there, bedroom design seemed to concentrate on practicality: convenient closets and storage headboards. But today, bedrooms are being decorated as Shangri-Las, fantasy retreats, safe havens from the world, work and woes.
Bedrooms are the most personal places in the house. In the public rooms -- kitchen, living and dining rooms -- people are under some constraint to decorate with others in mind. One's nude portait, for instance, if hung in the living room, might need to be curtained when the preacher came to tea.
Renwick Gallery director Lloyd Herman, who was handsomely portrayed by artist Lowell Nesbitt without the encumbrance of clothes, hangs the portrait in a bedroom.
Of course, if yourself in the flesh suffers when compared to a nude painting, you might rather go to another decorating scheme.
Mirrors are among the more common bedroom enhancers. Mirrors have been used on the ceiling, walls and even the furniture.
Mirroring love is nothing new. Dr. Bernard M.K.W. Knox, head of the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, cites one of the first decorating stories, by the Roman historian Seneca. In "Natural Questions" he tells about the wealthy Hostius Quadra who lived in the reign of the Emperor Augustus. In the playboy's elaborate villa, the walls of the bedroom were covered with magnifying mirrors. It may not be incidental that Quadra was murdered by his slaves.
Not everyone appreciates a mirrored bedroom. Former vice president Nelson Rockefeller bought a marvelous bed and screen by the artist Max Ernst for the vice president's residence on Observatory Hill. The bed had a built-in telephone, a sculpture of the moon and the stars as head- and footboards and a swiveling mirror. Rockefeller had the mirror painted black.
Even so, there were so many jokes about the bed, and Congress fussed so about it, that Rockefeller, who had intended it as a gift to the house, took it with him when he left office. It was shame, because the next occupant of the house, Joan Mondale, a true art connoisseur, would have appreciated it.
Traditionally, the bedroom has been thought of as a bower. The Garden of Eden style was especially in vogue during the Art Nouveau era, 1890-1914, when stylized flowers bloomed on beds and chests and lighting fixtures sprouted flowing tendrils. In this tradition is Albert Paley's magnificent wrought-iron bed, commissioned by a Washington couple who really know how to live. The bed was recently displayed here at Fendrick Gallery.
Nancy Reagan took the garden approach when she redecorated the White House bedrooms. The one she shares with her husband is very romantic with butterflies, birds and flowers sprinkled across a Chinese wallpaper.
The master suite in the White House consists of two rooms, two baths and a dressing room. Some first families have used one room as a study, the other as a bedroom. Others have prefered separate but equal bedrooms.
The Carters shared a bedroom and a double bed. The Fords brought their own king-size bed. But the Nixons had separate bedrooms, because, as Pat Nixon said, "No one could sleep with Dick, he tosses and turns too much."
In a very elaborate embassy in Washington, some years back, the wife of the ambassador had the master bedroom done up in the most rococo style, with a gilded four-poster bed. Her own dressing room had heated drawers so that her underwear would be pleasantly warm when she put it on. But the ambassador was sent to sleep in a narrow single bed in his dressing room, with a painting of his first wife above the bed.
Vladamir Kagan, the New York furniture designer, may well have made the ultimate bed for a Philadelphia client. "The bed is full of electronics," said Kagan. "Built into the bed are a telephone, television, lights and even storage drawers, all controlled by electronic buttons."
Kagan, has built hundreds of specially commissioned beds, including one for Marilyn Monroe. He designed one recently for a woman lawyer who likes to work on her law briefs in bed. A writing shelf swings out over the bed. "An industrialist also works in bed, so I made his with an elaborate telephone system as well as a work shelf."
Less industrious is the bed Kagan recently finished with a headboard made with a waterfall of mirrors. Onefor a Saudi Arabian palace had a 28-foot upholstered wall for a headboard.
"For about eight years, I have been making landscape beds," Kagan said. "Beds designed to be floated in the room. Few rooms have a proper wall for a king-size bed, so the only reasonable thing to do is make the bed stand on its own. Then if you do, you have to bring all the services with it, the phone, the lights, the place for the television. By putting the bed up on its own stage, I am able to built all of these things in. Electronics makes it possible to raise or lower them to suit."
Kagan has also designed rooms for communal lounging. "One family ordered five chaises for their television room. But the most elaborate room was one I did with multiple levels arranged for viewing television in one direction, the fireplace and the water view in others."
Bob Waldron, Washington's decorator to Democrats (and a few tasteful Republicans), says the most sensual room he remembers doing was one for a couple in Dallas. "I used five shades of amethyst in moire silk, damask and carpeting. I even found a crystal and amethyst chandelier. The owner, who had been very dubious at first, said after it was finished that you walked into the room and lowered your voice automatically."
Waldron cites as a favorite bedroom the one Joan Smith did for herself and her husband Eugene along the Potomac. The bed, by Nakashima, is set to overlook Great Falls. Waldron once bid successfully on a catered breakfast for four, which he and a friend collected with the Smiths in their bedroom.
Waldron hasn't designed a bed of roses, but he did do one for the Richard Bennetts with a rug centered with roses, specially woven by Edmund Fields.
Milo Hoots, another Washington decorator, once designed for a Washington Symphony showhouse a "bumper bed" with a frame made of Sonar tubes (pasteboard used as cement forms). The tubes were cut in half and upholstered. The room was covered in a beigy peach pleated fabric to reflect a flattering light on the inhabitants.
Hoots made a wisteria bower for a McLean bedroom. The bed floated in the middle of the room with a headboard of the fabric stretched across. On the walls the fabric alternated with mirrors.
New York interior designer Mark Hampton designed the Barbara/George Bush redecoration of the vice president's mansion, as well as Maury and Joan Tobin's house here. Hampton opts for the feminine bedroom: "fluffy, soft. I don't like tailored rooms. Even a desk looks too businesslike.
"I like white, lots of light in a bedroom. It should be a romantic retreat. This is the place for furniture that's too fragile for any other room. I love Sheraton, Hepplewhite and French furniture, painted perhaps, for the bedroom. Mirrored furniture is marvelous for a bedroom. I once stayed in a room in the south of France full of 1920s furniture with white gauze at the windows and on the bed. Somehow chrome and glass doesn't give the same effect.
"Hankerchief linen, yards and yards of it, make a soft, romantic look for the window and bed curtains. It can be dipped in color, peach perhaps, so easily, and it wears very well. Silk is very luxurious, but such an extravagance. It rots in the sun. I'm in a South Carolina house now where we made the curtains very full. We trim back the edges when they fray.
"One of my favorite bedrooms is in the country, it wouldn't work anywhere else. I lacquered the floor in white, used a white background wallpaper and touches of blue on the curtains."
Love, it is said, makes the world go 'round. So it isn't surprising that round beds should be considered sybaritic. Truman Boyles of Alexandria has probably made more round beds than anyone. Robert Shone, the owner, even made heart shaped beds in the late '50s, one for Jayne Mansfield, the late actress. "We make two or three round beds a year," said Charles Lemley, the shop and showroom manager. And we stock the sheets for them." The beds cost $1,200 for the 84-inch round and $1,500 for the 96-inch diameter. Sheets are $70 a set.
In the last half of the 20th century, one of the most seductive bedrooms of all time belongs to bachelor Philip Johnson. The bed area in his glass house at New Canaan, Conn., is very chaste, only a simple mattress and box springs facing the view. But in his guest house, the bedroom is set on a carpeted floor under a canopy of wooden arches surrounded by pleated panels of fabric which also slide over the door and window to make a cocoon. The only other furniture besides the bed are two ottomans.
Dr. Knox, the director of the Hellenic Center, also notes that in the pleasure house of Pompeii, the walls were covered with murals designed for erotic education, but the actual accomodations were rather cramped, being bunk beds.
Not so the 11-foot-square Great Bed of Ware, designed to hold 12 friendly people. This marvel, mentioned by Shakespeare, was made in the late 16th century for Rye House in Hertfordshire. For some years, the bed has lived in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In those days, not everybody had beds. Servants customarily slept on pallets outside their master's door. The well-to-do carried their folding beds with them. The military campaign bed was quite the fad among Napoleon's officers.
The most elaborate bedrooms were built during the baroque and rococo periods when beds were gilded barques floating in Olympian glory.
Painted ceilings and walls were high style in the early classical revival. The bedrooms of the Chateau de Vaux le Vicomte built from 1657 to 1661 by Nicholas Fouquet, Louis XIV's finance minister, were elaborate beyond belief -- so elaborate in fact, that Louis XIV fired him, thinking he'd been tipping the till. However the ceiling of his state bedroom with its medallion of a fight on horseback might not be considered conducive to romance, much less sleeping. The lunette (new moon panel) over the bed was more voluptuous: "time carrying innocence from the sky."
In the magnificent Burghley House in Northamptonshire, England, the 1694 painted nude figures disport themselves in the Heaven Room. By the magic of Verrio's art, they seem almost three-dimensional.
Cupids, the messengers of love, are three-dimensional in the pavilion in Nymphenburg Palace near Munich. The cupids are made of stucco by Charles Dubut, a French sculptor.
Josephine, after she was no longer empress, retired to the Chateau de Malmaison in France. The bedroom was decorated in 1810 by Percier and Fontaine. The bed, an elaborate thing of gilded carved wood, was set up on a podium. The oval canopy supported heavy embroidered curtains that made a protected tent of the bed. The walls were draped in silks. An oculus in the center of the round room was painted to resemble clouds.
Ludwig II of Bavaria, who yearned for what was not, built dream castles all over his country. At the time, he was counted mad and finally drowned or was drowned in a lake to keep him from building any more.
But before he was literally straitjacketed he managed to build enough fairy palaces that now tourist admissions almost make taxes unnecessary.
It took 17 men 4 1/2 years to carve the ornate gothic bed in his Neuschwanstein castle, surely the most romantic in the world. Ludwig, in one castle, kept a bedroom waiting for the ghost of Louis XIV, a bedroom larger than at Versailles, with a gilt bowl and pitcher sized for a giant. It took 20 women seven years to encrust the red velvet draperies with gold.
In his 50-foot-high grotto at Linderhof, made like a stage set of brick and iron covered in canvas and cement, singers floated in swan boats around the waterfall and over the artificial waves, illuminated by the colored lights run by the first dynamo in Bavaria.
At Versailles itself, the Sun King in his bed held courts called couchers. His bedroom was so elaborate his successor, Louis XV, moved down the hall and used Louis XIV's only for the couchers.
In 18th-century England, it was the custom to give the bed the king died in to his Lord Chamberlain. The death bed of George II is set up in the State Bedroom at Chatsworth. The suite with its "china closet" so called because of the porcelain collection, and the dressing room are only occupied upon a royal visit, most recently in 1913 by King George V and Queen Mary. Their busiest use is to be ogled by visitors.
The paintings here are Venus with Cupid by Giordano and another Venus and Adonis by Vouet. The ceiling is elaborately painted by Laguerre with Aurora, Dawn, chasing away Diana, night.
Thomas Jefferson prefered the cabinet bed, built into the wall away from drafts. His own ingenious bed which divides his room into sleeping and study areas, has a closet built over it.
In the 1930s, elaborate beds were thought the depth of delicious depravity by Hollywood. In the movie, "The Golden Bed," the furniture in question was a shell. Perhaps the late late '30s shows on television have helped spark the romantic bedroom revival. Greta Garbo was seduced from her communist career by the magnificent bedroom in "Ninotchka". In the 1950s, the singers in "Tales of Hoffman" made love in a series of lush settings, including the famous Venetian barque. Years later, in "Diamonds Are Forever," James Bond disported himself in a round room of mirrors centered by a round bed.
Today, the most decadent bedrooms are to be seen, appropriately, on the adult movies shown late at night on the subscription Super TV. Laura Antonelli cavorts through a series of Italian love epics in luscious Art Nouveau (or correctly for Italy Stile Liberte').
Leleu, the 1930s Art Deco designer, designed a bathroom for a mysterious "Mrs. K" that had a sunken tub, arched at one end with a shower from the ceiling. The velvet chaise had a fur throw.
Today, alas, it isn't easy to find embroiderers who will work five years on your bed hangings, nor carvers who can execute gothic detail as pictured in books such as "Great Interiors" edited by Ian Grant (Dutton). But in Terence Conran's "The Bed and Bath Book" (Crown) and a book just out by Diana Phipps, "Affordable Splendor,"(Random House) you can figure out how to do it yourself. Phipps is particularly good on instructions for making elaborately draped beds.