David Feld On The Perfect Bedside Table

The ins and outs of finding and outfitting the perfect bedside table.

Bedside Manners
One man’s musings on the makings of the perfect nightstand.

People who know me know how obsessed I am with my bed. It’s my favorite place on Earth. After a long day at the office “or on location “I jump in and surround myself with my three aging pugs and 14 pillows. My sheets are always freshly laundered and pressed. They are also always pure cotton. I change them no fewer than three times a week, and this is partly due to all of the dog hair my pugs shed, but mostly because it feels so good to slide in between crisp linens. I was once blessed with a housekeeper who actually ironed my sheets on my bed while they were still slightly damp, all the while misting them with lavender water. She has since departed, but my habit remains.

When one lives in bed as I do, the bedside table takes on inordinate importance. I think of it as command central. It’s the repository and adjunct to the world of books, magazines, television, and beverages. And, if you’re like me, you need a safe haven at the end of a stressful day. You’d be surprised how soothing a well-dressed bedside table can be. And why shouldn’t it be? It’s the first thing you see when you wake up and the last thing at night. It should please your eye.

Antique or traditionally designed bedside tables often come with a mate (wouldn’t it be nice if life always came with one?) and tend to be a tad undersized for modern life. Most are tiny things that can barely hold a lamp, much less multiple remote controls, a telephone, a glass of water, a stack of books, a candle, and a photo or two of loved ones. Antique bedside tables were designed before electronics were a regular part of our daily lives, and while they may have great charm, they are best consigned to the powder room, where they can hold those cute little soaps and embroidered guest towels that we’re all afraid to use.

There are, however, antique options that are quite usable. My old bedside table was an ancient English oak drop-leaf breakfast table with a small drawer. With its leaves fully extended, it held the full arsenal I require. But after years of propping its sagging leaves up with old magazines, one of its legs finally gave out, and it crumpled into a heap, irretrievably. It had served me well during its long life, but now I was faced with a major problem. I had to find a new bedside table.

I decided that this was the time to bite the bullet and buy an actual pair. While the other half of my bed might remain empty for now, that’s no reason not to have a night table on both sides. After all, it is a place for a lovely lamp, and I find symmetry soothing. After an exhaustive two-year search, where I became the expert on all bedside tables in the marketplace from Estate sales to eBay, I commissioned a pair of tables from John Gregory Studios. While John is mostly known for his impeccably provenanced midcentury French masterworks, he is also a great custom furniture designer. The pair that I bought is based on an antique, openwork, X-sided Regency table. But John made mine in highly polished sycamore, upsized it to fit my needs, and added three mirrored shelves to hold books and periodicals, plus the all-important drawer that every good bedside table must have. My drawer holds the aforementioned remotes, takeout menus, and an ashtray. You need a drawer to hold, well, whatever. It’s no one’s business what’s in it, but I find that the contents of a bedside table’s drawer tend to be different than any other drawer in the house. While some of it might be considered junk, it’s sweeter junk than the scrabble found in kitchen drawers. This might be because everything in the bedroom is more personal. It’s where we keep things close to our hearts. Open a bedside table drawer and you’ll find mementos, not rubbish. Like a matchbook from a restaurant where you had a special date, or a tattered snapshot of a long lost friend tucked inside an old letter. Maybe some beautiful ribbon from a box that contained a cherished gift. Pennies. There’s something dear about a few loose pennies at the bottom of a drawer, don’t you think?

While a bedside table reflects some of what’s in our hearts, its surface should just be beautiful. My new bedside table holds one of a pair of wonderful Venetian glass lamps that are shaded in simple white silk. In my house every light has a dimmer. And I’m rather rigid in the belief that light-colored lampshades are most suitable for reading by as they let out more light. Save black or novelty shades for those rooms where drama is more suitable than practicality.

Books, for me, are the main reason for buying an overscaled bedside table. At the moment, mine holds about 20. Is there any sight as comforting as piles of books with fresh, unbroken spines just waiting to be cracked open? If you’ve read this column this far, you’re a reader and probably understand. The kind of books you read are as important as the brand of any lamp or accessory you might place there. Make sure they are ones you love. A few that reside at the moment by my bedside are, The Nearly Departed, a book by my friend Brenda Cullerton that is a darkly hilarious memoir of her eccentric family; Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which are exquisitely precise renderings of clashing immigrants, cultural identity, and love; and the most recent Harry Potter. And, finally, the last four issues of The New Yorker that I have yet to open: when five stack up I start to get really anxious.

I always have some type of cut flower or foliage in a container by my bed. This is really important, but it doesn’t have to be a big deal. You can blow a few bucks a week or spring for a small orchid, which should bloom nicely for a month. Even a cutting from a tree branch will do spectacularly. Since flowers absorb carbon monoxide and give off oxygen, they’re good nighttime companions. Besides, what could be more restful than something organic and beautiful near you while you slumber?

Another essential bedside detail is a decanter of chilled water and a glass. My current favorite is a Calvin Klein crystal carafe with a glass that also doubles as a lid, forming a perfect cylinder. Your clock should be simple, not annoyingly complicated. My own is a pared-down Braun travel clock. It’s cheap, stylish, and unobtrusive. (I detest clock radios. I’m fairly certain you do, too.) A pair of plain Sterling silver picture frames from Tiffany and Co. contain snapshots of my closest friends and family. There’s no better place for a candle than the bedside table. While I’m reading each night, I light my favorite one from Christian Tortu, called Forêt. Scented richly like a pine forest, it flickers by my side until I’m ready to fall asleep.

A candle, a carafe of water, framed photos of loved ones, a few favorite books “simple things, but, in the end, there’s no better way to say good night.

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