The 24/7 Bed

by Beatriz Colomina

When John Lennon and Yoko Ono married secretly in Gibraltar on March 20, 1969, the ceremony lasted only three minutes. But these minutes, so elaborately protected, were in fact the end of privacy. They promptly invited a global audience into their honeymoon bed, a weeklong Bed-In for Peace held from March 25 to 31, 9am to 9pm, in room 902 of the Amsterdam Hilton International Hotel. Two of the most public people in the world put themselves in a literal fishbowl, the glass box of the Hilton. But the workday didn’t end at 9pm. John and Yoko repeatedly declared that they wanted to conceive a baby during that week. The bed is both protest site and factory for baby production: a fucktory.

John and Yoko didn’t simply occupy the room. They redesigned it as a media stage set with a particular image in mind. They were in every sense the architects of that image. It is not by chance that the published images look so similar; practically only one angle was possible. They had emptied the usual Hilton room, removing all the furniture, artwork, and decoration, leaving only the king size bed, which they deliberately placed against the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, with a panoramic view onto the city of Amsterdam. With their back to the window, they faced inside the room in a kind of Loosian move – Adolf Loos always placed the couch against the window with the occupants facing the interior and turned into a silhouette against the light for those entering the room. Their bodies against the light – in an all-white background, of white walls, white sheets, white pajamas, and white flowers – seemed to fly above Amsterdam.

The hotel is in the city, but detached; a transparent oasis. But what is outside? The background is Amsterdam, at the time the center of Europe’s 1960s cultural and sexual revolution, of experimentation with sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, political activism, and protest – against the Vietnam war, the local government, and housing shortages; for equal rights, abortion, and even alternative forms of transportation.

The 24/7 bed of John Lennon and Yoko Ono anticipates the working bed of today. In what is probably now a conservative estimate, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that 80 percent of young New York City professionals work regularly from bed. The fantasy of the home office has given way to the reality of the bed office. The very meaning of the word ‘office’ has been transformed. Millions of dispersed beds are taking over from concentrated office buildings. The boudoir is defeating the tower. Networked electronic technologies have removed any limit to what can be done in bed. But how did we get here?

In his famous short text Louis-Philippe, or the Interior, Walter Benjamin wrote of the splitting of work and home in the nineteenth century:

“Under Louis-Philippe, the private citizen enters the stage of history. . . . For the private person, living space becomes, for the first time, antithetical to the place of work. The former is constituted by the interior; the office is its complement.” (Walter Benjamin, 1978)

Industrialization brought with it the eight-hour shift and the radical separation between the home and the office or factory, between rest and work, night and day. Postindustrialization collapses work back into the home and takes it further into the bedroom and into the bed itself. The whole universe is concentrated on a small screen with the bed floating in an infinite sea of information. To lie down is not to rest but to move. The bed is now a site of action.

The voluntary invalid has no need of their legs. The bed has become the ultimate prosthetic and a whole new industry is devoted to providing contraptions to facilitate work while lying down –reading, writing, texting, recording, broadcasting, listening, talking, and, of course, eating, drinking, sleeping, or making love, activities that seem to have been turned, of late, into work itself. Endless advice is dispensed about how to ‘work’ on your personal relationships, ‘schedule’ sex with your partner. Sleeping is definitely hard work too, for millions, with the psychopharmaceutical industry providing new drugs every year and an army of sleep experts providing advice on how to achieve this apparently ever more elusive goal – all in the name of higher productivity, of course. Everything done in the bed has become work.

This philosophy was already embodied in the figure of Hugh Hefner, who famously almost never left his bed, let alone his house. He literally moved his office to his bed in 1960 when he moved into the Playboy Mansion at 1340 North State Parkway, Chicago, turning it into the epicenter of a global empire and his silk pajamas and dressing gown into his business attire. “I don’t go out of the house at all!!! . . . I am a contemporary recluse”, he told Tom Wolfe, guessing that the last time he was out had been three and a half months before and that in the last two years he had been out of the house only nine times. Playboy turns the bed into a workplace. From the mid-1950s on, the bed becomes increasingly sophisticated, outfitted with all sorts of entertainment and communication devices as a kind of control room.

Hefner was not alone. The bed may have been the ultimate American office at midcentury. In an interview in the Paris Review in 1957, Truman Capote is asked, “What are some of your writing habits? Do you use a desk? Do you write on a machine?”, to which he answers: “I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and a coffee handy.”

Even architects set up office in bed at midcentury. Richard Neutra started working the moment he woke up with elaborate equipment enabling him to design, write, or even interview in bed. Neutra’s bed in the VDL house in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, included two public phones; three communication stations for talking with other rooms in the house, the office below, and even another office 500 meters away; three different call bells; drafting boards and easels that folded down over the bed; electric lights and a radio-gramophone controlled from a dashboard overhead. A bedside table rolling on casters held the tape recorder, electric clock, and storage compartments for drawing and writing equipment so that he could, as Neutra put it in a letter to his sister, “use every minute from morning to late night.”

Postwar America inaugurated the high-performance bed as an epicenter of productivity, a new form of industrialization that was exported globally and has now become available to an international army of dispersed but interconnected producers. A new kind of factory without walls is constructed by compact electronics and extra pillows for the 24/7 generation.

The kind of equipment that Hefner envisioned (some of which, like the answering machine, didn’t yet exist) is now expanded for the Internet and social media generation, who not only work in bed but socialize in bed, exercise in bed, read the news in bed, and entertain sexual relationships with people miles away from their beds. The Playboy fantasy of the nice girl next door is more likely realized today with someone on another continent than in the same building or neighborhood – a person you may have never seen before and may never see again, and it is anybody’s guess if she is real or an electronic construction. Does it matter? As in the recent film Her, a moving depiction of life in the soft, uterine state that is a corollary to our new mobile technologies, the ‘her’ in question is an operating system that turns out to be a more satisfying partner than a person. The protagonist lies in bed with Her, chatting, arguing, making love and eventually breaking up still in bed.

If, according to Jonathan Crary, late capitalism is the end of sleep, colonizing every minute of our lives for production and consumption, the actions of the voluntary recluse are not so voluntary in the end. The nineteenth-century division of the city between rest and work may soon become obsolete. Not only have our habits and habitat changed with the Internet and social media, but predictions about the end of human labor in the wake of new technologies and robotization that were already being made at the end of the nineteenth century are no longer treated as futuristic. COVID has accelerated this shift in the status of labor and complicated it with the increasing choice of flexible work, working only from home, or not working at all.

Economists wonder what kind of economic model this reality will lead to: from growing inequalities with vast amount of people unemployed to large-scale redistribution in the form of Universal Basic Income, which was considered a few years ago in a referendum in Switzerland and rejected. The end of paid labor and its replacement with creative leisure was already envisioned in utopian projects of the 1960s and 1970s by Constant, Superstudio, and Archizoom, including hyperequipped beds. Shouldn’t architects return to this question?

Meanwhile the city has started to redesign itself. In today’s ever-accelerating overstimulated society, in which attention becomes fleeting, we have discovered that we work better in short bursts punctuated by rest. Today many companies provide sleeping pods in the office to maximize productivity. Bed and office are never far apart in the 24/7 world. Special self-enclosed beds have been designed for office spaces – turning themselves into compact sealed capsules, minispaceships, that can be used in isolation or gathered together in clusters or lined up in rows for synchronized sleep – understood as a part of work rather than its opposite. As Arianna Huffington predicts in 2018 “’recharging rooms’ will be as common as board rooms” But these relaxation spaces and technologies are not simply appearing inside offices. Whole new types of building dedicated to sleep are popping up in cities. The question of the bed has become an urban question, one of the urban questions calling for our attention today.

The Internet and social media have fundamentally redefining the spaces in which we live, our relationship to objects and to each other. Social media is a new form of urbanization, the architecture of how we live together. Beds have become the key nodes in the vast invisible net of the global communications system that defines the real city of today.

More magazine articles will gradually be published on our website in anticipation of Ruhr Ding: Schlaf until the next printed magazine is published in spring 2023. You can subscribe to it free of charge here.

Irrlichter tour in Steele

On a Saturday morning, under the heatwave called El Niño, I went on a walk in Essen-Steele with seven people and visited public artworks created specifically for places you wouldn't normally enter ...

Beyond the imaginable

Eva Koťátková in conversation with Britta Peters about the exhibition My Body Is Not An Island

Loss of Control Is the Necessary Condition for Sleep

To what extent do working conditions influence our sleep behaviour? In the post-industrial era, do we sleep better or do digitalisation and the unboundedness of working conditions deprive us of sleep?