Comfortable alternatives to a box spring and mattress

When it comes to a good night's rest, most Americans are devoted to the traditional box spring and mattress. However, there are a number of alternatives on the market which also offer comfort, adequate support, and some unique features. But, like trying on shoes, the bottom line is what feels best to you. The futon:

An Oriental alternative to the conventional box spring and mattress is the futon -- the traditional bedding of Japan. Simply constructed, futon mattresses are made of layers of batting encased in a fabric cover. A recent newcomer to the states, futons are most readily available on the East and West Coasts.

Shinera, an expanding futon company with shops in Boston, New York, and New Jersey, Americanized the traditional futon by making it thicker, standardizing the sizes to fit conventional sheets and blankets, and making removable decorative covers for easy care rather than the original Japanese method of quilting the outer cover directly to the futon.

Carol Schoeneberger, president and founder of Shinera, originally learned how to make futons from a Japanese woman and produced them in her Cambridge apartment before branching out into her business. Shinera futons are still made by hand.

A futon mattress provides a firm, cushioned sleeping surface that takes some of its resilience from the surface it is placed on. Futons can be set directly on the floor, on a platform bed or bed frame with slats, or even on a box spring. To sleep Japanese-style, futons are placed on tatami mats made from tightly woven compressed rice straw edged in black ribbon. About two inches thick, the tatami mats provide a solid but slightly pliant surface.

One advantage of a futon is its versatility. It can be stored in a closet by day, used as a floor cushion, or folded against a wall and used as a couch or chair. for this reason, apartment dwellers find them appealing. Futons are also popular for summer cottages or as extra bedding for guests.

Futons made from pure cotton are more comfortable than those made with manmade materials, says Ms. Schoeneberger, because cotton allows the skin to breathe. In the Shinera factory, raw cotton, which has been cleaned and felted into layers, is encased in unbleached cotton muslin. Because the layers are cut exactly to size and quilted to the muslin case, the futon stays even and does not lump or bunch up. It does become more compressed with use but can be plumped up again by dropping it squarely on the floor a few times from a height of two or three feet.

Futton mattresses are relatively inexpensive. They range from $49.50 for a crib size to $143 for a king size. King-size box spring and innerspring sets currently sell for $500 and up.

For more information on futons and a mail-order catalog, send $2 to Shinera, PO Box 528, Boston, Mass. 02102. The water bed:

A child of the '60s, the water bed is not forgotten.

In fact, according to Roy Delrick, executive director of the Waterbed Manufacturers' Association, water-bed sales rose in 1980 to create a billion-dollar industry. The water- bed market has a averaged an annual growth of 30 percent a year over the last five years and composes about 5 percent of the total bedding industry.

Water-bed sales are still strongest in the Southwest, where the product was born, says Mr. Delrick, but the fastest-growing market is the Midwest, where "they're catching on like wildfire."

And it is not just 'young hippies' who are buying them. Recent demographics indicate the upper age range of water-bed buyers has crept into the 50s.

Part of the increasing interest may be due to a hybrid that has helped legitimitize water beds in the eyes of more conservative consumers. Composed of a basic water mattress encased in foam and ticking, the hybrid combination of water mattress and box spring looks deceptively like a traditional innerspring bed set. The hybrid has expanded the water-bed business from specialty shops into department stores.

Variations on the hybrid theme are the newest air beds. A substantial step up from the camping variety, they are built on the same principle as a hybrid water bed, using air instead of water.

The prime advantage of flotation bedding is that the water or air displaces easily to fully support the body, including areas such as the back of the knees, the small of the back, and the back of the neck. Flotation experts claim this type of support gives a more restful sleep than conventional bedding.

Water-bed enthusiasts enjoy the weightless sensation and gentle motion of a water mattress. Those who prefer a less wavy sleep opt for "baffle" water beds with inner chambers that reduce the water motion.

Water beds do have potential drawbacks. some problems arise from faulty or negligent installation, when, for instance, a cap is not screwed on correctly or the hose is left running too long.

Weight is also a factor. some king-size versions weigh over 2000 pounds, a fact that makes many apartment landlords weak in the knees. However, according to an engineering report commissioned by the Waterbed Manufacturers' Association , most buildings that meet current building code requirements will adequately support the water-bed weight.

While horror stories of water flooding from a split water mattress are largely unfounded, there are some "leakers," as the industry calls them. An undetected pinhole in the vinyl, for example, may develop into a slow leak which can be patched. In hybrid mattresses, water seepage may do damage to the foam before the leak is detected.

In other cases of leakage, a side seam of the bag may partially split caused by stress from the lateral motion of the waves. Water- bed manufacturers have responded to this problem by offering bags with bottom seams only. Those manufacturers who have switched to this type of bag say the "leaker" problem has significantly lessened.

For best results, the association recommends that customers check to be sure the water bed includes the following:

* A water-bed frame: a supporting structure that contains the water mattress.

* A heater, which Mr. Delrick says is a must for water-bed owners. The heater keeps the mattress at a comfortable temperature and prevents condensation.

* A water-bed liner, which will contain the water if a leak occurs. The platform bed:

If limited space is a concern, a platform bed can be a solution. Noted for their storage capabilities, platform beds serve the dual purposes of a bed and bureau in one unit.

Althugh they date back to the Egyptian pharaohs, platform beds became popular most recently in the late 1950s with the influx of the clean Scandinavian look in home furnishings. Composed of a solid deck supported by a low base, platform beds have simple lines and a floating appearance.

Platform beds usually have drawers built directly into the base or drawers that are freestanding and roll into the space under the bed. According to John Buster, woodworker and owner of The Bedworks in Cambridge, Mass., this type of storage can cost one-third to one-fourth as much as a conventional bureau with the same storage capacity.

Another advantage, he notes, is that platform beds are easy to move because the components can be dismantled. In the beds Mr. Buster designs, the deck divides in two and the storage base comes apart into separate pieces to be reassembled in the new location.

In terms of cushioning, foam, futon, water, or the newest air mattresses are workable choices. A conventional innerspring mattress can also be used, but because it is intended to work as a pair with a boxspring, it won't perform as well on a solid deck.

To choose an efficient, well-designed platform bed, Mr. Buster offers these criteria:

* The frame around the mattress should be tongue-in-grooved to the deck for structural strength. The platform deck should be firmly attached to the base.

* Look for safe, hidden fittings rather than exposed brackets with screwheads that can tear sheets. Metal-to-metal fittings are better than wood screws that may strip their holes after a move or two and cause the bed to wobble.

* If the bed needs to be in a corner, drawers on wheels should be able to couple and glide out together to avoid unusable storage space. Drawers with removeable dividers are a good option for storing large items such as pillows and comforters.

* For strength and beauty, all parts should be solid hardwood with rounded corners and edges for safety.

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