Foam Pleasures: Learning About Mattresses with Michael Stege
Syeyoung Park’s The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra very much disturbed my relation to the object we all sleep on. I therefore turned to Michael Stege – who has many responsibilities with Metzeler Schaum GmbH (https://www.metzeler-schaum.de/), a manufacturer of polyurethane soft foam formed parts including mattresses – in search of a (hopefully) more calming approach to mattresses and everything that lives in them.
Patrick Holzapfel: I don’t know anything about mattresses. Can you tell me about what they’re made of, specifically the fillings?
Michael Stege: There are different methods of construction. The most important aspect of any mattress is that it adapts to the body and not the other way round. 90% of people say they prefer to lie on hard mattresses, so you could take some foam, put a cover around it and that’s it. But – it’s important to find ways to get air circulating through the mattress, because air is very important to the durability and hygiene of a mattress. So, you cut foam from a normal block and then you try to alter the material in order for it to stay smooth and not become rock-hard. You can change its so-called core – its ‘inner life’. For example, you can work with a spring core – that’s the most frequently used core. It’s good for breathability and durability and, if it’s built well, the mattress will also adapt to your body. In our company, we use a core made of a special foam that guarantees airflow and prevents dampness. There are other materials you can use as a core too, such as latex.
When I enter a mattress store, everything looks alike to me. I’m also not sure that I immediately feel any difference sitting or lying on different mattresses. Whether a mattress is good or bad for me is something that I tend to discover too late, after sleeping on it for weeks or months. Can you tell me how significant the differences between mattresses really are?
Every manufacturing company has its own ideas, so it’s difficult to answer. If a salesperson has a favourite mattress, it might turn out unlucky for you – whatever they like won’t necessarily be a good fit for you. It’s all about individuality. The most crucial aspect is how you feel when lying on a mattress. Your body should tell you after two or three seconds whether it likes a mattress or not. But it’s possible to look at the way you’re built, your age, your centres of gravity, possible ailments and pains in order to find a suitable mattress for you – so it’s not only about the product, it’s also about consulting.
You might roll over up to 150 times every night when lying on the wrong mattress because you’ll never enter slow-wave sleep phase, whereas on the right mattress you’ll only rotate about 30 to 40 times. That’s restful sleep.
Another thing to consider is your motivation for buying a mattress. Are you just looking for a temporary solution or do you want to sleep pleasantly for eight to 10 years? There’s a huge array [of products], going from €39 to €2000. On television, certain mattresses are promoted as best-selling products – but just because something is best-selling doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for you. Those mattresses are junk, that’s why they’re so cheap. It’s a problem.
How important are objects like pillows or blankets for your work? Could there be a wrong blanket for a specific mattress?
We don’t manufacture blankets but the synergy between these elements is very important. Of course, blankets can be too thick or thin, depending on the temperature. Sleep phases repeat two to three times each night, sometimes even more often – it’s a cycle that lasts two to three hours each time. This is the time in which your body recovers from the day. Any disturbance – be it the wrong blanket, wrong pyjamas, wrong light, wrong temperature – stops you from recovering properly. Bed slats are also very important. If the slats are not attuned to the mattress, you can lose up to 45% of sleeping quality. It’s like cheap tires on a roadster. The wrong pillows, meanwhile, may cause pain in the back, the neck or the lumbar region.
In films, mattresses are often placed on the floor. Do you turn your nose up at such an outrageous thing?
Mattress experts are often turning their nose up at something, that’s quite common. Mattresses wind up on the floor because people think they prefer to sleep on a hard surface – it’s such a common belief that even [leading German consumer safety group] Stiftung Warentest claims you can put your mattress on a Euro pallet. That’s nonsense. Slats are able to actually adapt to the body. Our slatted frames, for example, can adapt to up to 400 varieties of figures. On the floor, you have to have a very good mattress [for it to still be supportive], but even then it can only reach up to 70% of its potential. With a lesser mattress it doesn’t really make a difference, not much will happen whether you put it on slats or on the floor. It’s all about the aspirations of the sleeper.
The main issue we’re confronted with is back pain. Very often, people come to us too late. They have a disc prolapse and then they want a good mattress. If you have back pain and you put your mattress on the floor, that’s terrible. Additionally, air circulation is impossible on the floor. The air can’t reach the underside. It’s quite bad from a hygienic point of view. Each night you release around 0.2 litres of sweat into the mattress. Just imagine after 10 years, 3650 days, how much sweat such a mattress contains. You don’t want to see these images, it’s terrible. That’s why airflow and washable double sheets are essential. Together, these guarantee a relatively clean mattress.
You wouldn’t believe the states that I’ve encountered consumers’ mattresses in. Those are the people who have their mattresses on the floor. Young students may not have €1000 for a good mattress… Would they spend it, however, they’d find that they could concentrate better the following day.
How long can you sleep on the same mattress if it’s properly cared for?
10 to 15 years easily, just taking into account the materials. Sometimes there are construction mistakes or manufacturers might make the foam appear out to be better quality than it actually is, then it might have a shorter lifespan. However, poor hygiene shortens the regular lifespan to seven to 10 years. It also depends on your weight and how you use it. Having sex on a mattress also changes how long it can be used. You have to consider all these things when working with mattresses.
We always say that we are sleeping in a mattress, not on a mattress. When you reach the slow-wave sleep phase your body falls into a sort of coma. For 20 minutes your muscles, ligaments and tendons go limp. If your mattress doesn’t support your body properly during those 20 minutes, you’ll never be able to feel rejuvenated because you’ll have been lying in crooked positions. That’s the main task of any mattress.
Have requirements from customers changed in recent years and decades or has it been the same over the years?
I’d say awareness around sleep culture has improved. The idea of feeling rejuvenated has become more important in a world that asks a lot of each and every one of us. Together with furniture stores we try to enlighten customers in order to be able to sell them higher quality materials. I think we could still improve the sleep quality of about 90% of all people.
Are there cultural differences in terms of mattresses and sleeping culture? Do people in Japan like to sleep differently than people in Europe, for example?
There are differences. Within Europe, countries like Italy or France have different ideas about sleep than we do in Germany. They give more value to sleep. In the Netherlands, there are almost no cheap mattresses being sold. My wife is from Indonesia, and there they sleep on rock-hard mattresses. Sometimes, it’s also about readjustment. It’s about communication. We try to tell people as much as we can about the importance of good sleep.
I’d like to know if you think mattresses can have a personality of their own, given that they’re objects you have a professional as well as personal relation to.
I do indeed think about mattresses like that. I look forward to lying down on my mattress every evening and I tell myself that it’s going to swallow me. We also use certain materials that may appear very esoteric, but they work. For example, we manufacture mats filled with crystals that resonate with your body’s vibrations and help you to sleep more calmly. You place the mat underneath the mattress and it affects your sleep. It’s esoteric but we believe in it.
Mattresses customised for a specific body could be named after the person. So my mattress would be called Micha 2, and each night it looks forward to supporting Micha 1!
Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.