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The Murphy Bed, Transformable Spaces, and What Lies Ahead

Andrew Littlefield
A side by side comparison of a woman putting away a murphy bed next to an Ori Cloud Bed

In 1908, Henry Ford changed the world by introducing the Ford Model T—the first mass production vehicle available to middle-class Americans at an affordable price.

In the 113 years since the Model T rolled off the production line, cars have changed dramatically. Compare the Model T to a Tesla Model 3 and about the only thing they share is four wheels and a set of headlights. Both were created with a similar goal in mind—offering a first-of-its-kind vehicle that an average consumer could afford. Yet the technological gap between them is vast.

The Model T put out about 20 horsepower, had a max speed of 45 mph, and burned dirty gasoline fuel. The Model 3 produces 500 horsepower, goes 0-60 in 3.1 seconds, can hit speeds of more than 150 mph, and does it all with zero emissions. There’s no debate who wins the showdown between those two vehicles—with over a century of progress, one should hope there’s a clear winner!

Yet not so in the world of transformable furniture. Three years after the Model T came out, William Lawrence Murphy introduced the world to a bed that could be concealed in a wall, making space more efficient for urban dwellers.

Efficient and functional, perhaps. But 110 years later, the wall bed is essentially unchanged. The aesthetics may have improved, but it is still a hassle to operate: it must be manually opened and closed, the mattress and linens strapped down, and the floorspace cleared away.

Isn’t it time for a Tesla Model 3 in our homes? We spend far more time at home than we do in our cars, but we’re still stuck trying to maximize our apartment space with a 100-year-old design.

Let’s explore the history of transformable furniture—and then look forward to a technological revolution 100 years in the making.

A Brief History of the Murphy Bed

William Lawrence Murphy lived a hardscrabble life prior to his business ventures with the Murphy bed. Born in 1876 to an Irish immigrant father—who came to California to mine—both of Murphy’s parents died within months of each other when he was just 19 years old. Not long after, Murphy moved to a boarding house in San Francisco—the same boarding house where one of the residents was a beautiful opera singer called Gladys Kaighin, who would later become Murphy’s wife.

It was around this time that Murphy began experimenting with his designs for a wall bed. An unsubstantiated origin story suggests that rules preventing women visiting a male boarder’s bedroom provided inspiration for his design. If the bed could be put away, the room was no longer a bedroom, and thus entertaining female guests (perhaps Gladys?) was no longer forbidden.

A Growing Business

Whatever the motivation, by the end of 1911 advertisements for “Murphy Wall Beds” began to pop up in newspapers around San Francisco and Sacramento.

An excerpt from the San Francisco Examiner Dec 24 1911
San Francisco Examiner Dec 24 1911

However, Murphy soon ran into trouble. Los Angeles area real estate moguls Marshall & Sterns had begun advertising “wall beds” and other space-saving fixtures more than six years earlier and had recently begun operations in San Francisco. The company advertised similar benefits and even marketed their products to landlords and other real estate developers as a way to make their buildings more attractive to tenants.

An excerpt from the Los Angeles Times, October 22nd, 1905
Los Angeles Times, October 22nd, 1905

Early ads from Marshall & Stearns refer to their product offerings as “W. C. James Patented Fixtures,” and indeed a man named Willard C. James had filed for patents on nearly a dozen multipurpose furniture pieces for small homes, including one for an “apartment house” which featured a suite of devices intended to “provide in the most compact and convenient form… a single apartment made to satisfactorily serve as parlor, sitting-room, kitchen and pantry, dining-room, two bedrooms, bathroom, store room and library,” offering “practically instantaneous transformation” from one to the other.

A patent application from May 20, 1902 for a "W.C. James Apartment House"

Notably, James had also applied for a “folding bed” patent in 1904. His invention would “provide a folding bed that will be nearly balanced on its support in all positions, so as to require but little effort for its operation,” and that would be flush with the wall when folded up in order to fully conceal it. Marshall & Stearns believed they had the rights to the wall bed; so, they sued Murphy.

While the existence of the James patent may suggest an open-and-shut case (excuse the pun) for the lawsuit against Murphy, James himself never claimed in his patents to be creating an entirely new category and in fact continued to improve designs for folding, concealed beds that had been around for centuries in various forms. A judge came to the same conclusion and dismissed the suit against Murphy—who had not taken kindly to the attack and countersued Marshall & Stearn for damage to his business. He even took out a newspaper advertisement to publicly defend his company.

A newspaper ad describing a lawsuit

Regardless of the bickering and lawsuits, it's clear Murphy won the branding war. Over the next few decades thousands of apartment listings all over the country advertised their units for rent with “Murphy beds.”

“Murphy bed” became a household name. So well known that years later, in 1954, Murphy’s son—William Kaighin Murphy—appeared on the popular game show “What’s My Line” where the celebrity panel tried to correctly guess his line of work. When asked if his product “plugs in,” the crowd laughs at the ridiculousness of the question. Oh, but if they knew what was coming…

It’s Time for a Tech Revolution in Space Transformation

It’s amusing to look back on the history of the murphy bed (now considered a generic term following a 1989 judicial ruling) and see that those living in small spaces have for more than a century been trying to move their beds out of the way when not in use in order to enjoy more functional, more flexible space.

Using early 20th century state-of-the-art technology, Murphy and James succeeded in creating functional pieces of transformable furniture. They made space transformation as simple as you could make it in 1911.

But it’s now 2021. And the state-of-the-art technology available to us is significantly more advanced.

What was once an absurd thought—a disappearing bed that gets plugged in—is now reality. A room transformation that previously took several minutes of clearing away and strapping and lifting now only takes a few seconds and the stroke of a finger or even just a few words.

“Anytime we’re designing an Ori product, the primary goal is to make it as effortless as possible for the user,” says Ori CEO Hasier Larrea. “In order for a room to be truly multi-purpose, transforming that space must be as simple as walking from one room to another.”

With the advent of internet-connected home devices and home robotics, a new world of technology has the power to transform our spaces, open up our homes, and effortlessly and intelligently adapt to our daily routines. Just as the Tesla Model 3 is changing how we view vehicles, Ori’s technology is changing what is possible in our homes.