Afloat co-founder Charlie Hall was a 24-year-old design student at San Francisco State University when he first began experimenting with prototypes of the waterbed. “It was a very open, experimental time in San Francisco,” he explains.
Hall built the demo model in 1968 in his Haight-Ashbury home, just months after the Summer of Love, when 100,000 young people streamed into the famously bohemian neighborhood in an embrace of counter-culture, peace, love, mind-bending drugs, and rock n’ roll.
Hall, like many of his design school classmates, was inspired to think differently. “Famous furniture designers like Eames and Mies van der Rohe had signature chairs,” Hall explains, “but I think they were more a sculptural effort, than something that really analyzed comfort.” Comfort became Hall’s driving motivation. “I wanted to create furniture that could form to the contours of the body without creating pressure points,” he says.
Hall set off on a period of experimentation, filling chairs with cornstarch and Jell-o before finally hitting upon the idea of a water mattress. His first prototype, a heated bed that undulated and hugged the body, was an instant hit with his classmates. “Somebody got a bottle of wine,” Hall says. “The party didn’t stop until everybody got too tired and went home.”
He soon set up a studio and word of his new invention travelled fast. “One went to a Smothers Brother, another to a member of Jefferson Airplane,” says Hall. “I made one for Hugh Hefner upholstered in green velvet . . . I think it got a lot of use there.” He even sold a couple to a nudist colony, delivering them himself in his Rambler station wagon.
In 1969, Hall patented the modern flotation mattress: a vinyl, water-filled bladder equipped with a temperature control device designed to synchronize with the body’s temperature. He also created a larger mattress named the “Pleasure Pit,” that could be used as either a bed or a space for living room gatherings. The name, of course, invites the imagination to wander, but the bed, Hall insists, “was a serious sleep product.” Certainly it changed American ideas about comfort. “It used to be ‘firmer is better,’” says Hall. “Water beds changed what we look for in a mattress, a sleep environment that conforms to you.”
Over time, Hall turned his design eye to other projects - solar showers, camping mattresses, and inflatable kayaks - earning over 40 patents to his name. But nearly 50 years after his original invention, he teamed up with former colleagues Keith Koenig and Michael Geraghty to reimagine the waterbed with 21st century tech. Enter the Afloat. Completely hypo-allergenic. Personalized temperature controls. A durable, impermeable liner. And of course, the body-conforming comfort and support of water.
As for that original spirit of the Summer of Love? “Because this water bed fills in any open spots, the motion is suppressed substantially,” Hall says, blushing. “The cuddling and position aspects are far better than anything you could imagine.” “As we told our customers over 50 years ago,” he continues, “two things are better on a waterbed, one of them is sleep.” Some things never change.
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