It’s strange to consider now, but people didn’t always need to conk out on memory foam to have a good night’s sleep. In centuries past, the lower class slept on itchy straw pallets, and I bet they slept really fucking well. Of course, these were people whose days began at dawn and consisted of hard manual labor throughout, so I imagine they passed into a deep and dreamless sleep almost instantly. Frankly, it’s a miracle anyone had energy left over to procreate.
Now most of us spend our working days on our ass; more than that, all the varied crap that comes with a modern life is more than enough to keep us wide-eyed and staring at the ceiling. Whether these details really matter in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant. Few of us sleep enough, fewer of us sleep well.
Customized mattresses seem like the natural sleep surface for our pampered, anxious modern selves. So when Motherboard asked me to try a mattress from Helix Sleep, one of the self-styled mattress industry disruptors—”personalized mattresses for unprecedented comfort”—I was more than game.
After peering at my answers, Adam began to stack the layers of foam accordingly
Helix mattresses are ordered online and shipped to your door for a 100-night trial (and the end of which you can return your mattress). They start at $900, which is a lot of money but still less than most brand-name mattresses. But more than that, they’re structurally modified to conform to your specific physical needs, based on your answers to a brief questionnaire. Back pain? Restless leg syndrome? Broad shoulders? Fat as hell? These, to Helix, are issues that can be accommodated.
The Helix showroom (which is also its office) is located in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood in the Silk Building, a century-old property whose origins were in silk manufacturing. The lobby still holds several bizarre friezes that depict and caption the silk-making process both in industrial New York and ancient China. (Not every elevator bank is underneath the words “sifting pupae.”)
Helix was founded in 2015 by three Wharton grads who developed the idea after being sufficiently annoyed by their own mattress shopping experiences. I sat down across from one of them, a fresh-faced young man named Adam Tishman, who according to Helix’s press materials, prefers a medium-firm mattress. Adam was probably about my age, but his unwavering enthusiasm made me feel ancient by comparison.
Adam and his partners are providing an appealing service. They found some consumer pain points—unsatisfying nights of sleep, the inconvenience of buying a new mattress—and addressed them handily. But is a customized mattress really a luxury we need? And if it is, how did we get to this point from “away in a manger”?
Image: Helix Sleep
For most of my early twenties, I slept on a mattress that was at least two decades old, a queen-sized hand-me-down from my childhood home. I had no idea how old it was, but when I found out that it likely predated my own birth, I decided it was a good time to get a new one. My eventual purchase predated Helix’s launch, which was just this past August. But the stress of having to choose something I spend a third of my life on in the matter of an hour was overwhelming. I’d probably have been the ideal candidate for a Helix customer—a young urban semi-professional with some measure of disposable income and no time to go to a Sleepy’s and somehow haul a mattress back to my apartment (which is, of course, a walkup).
Back to the showroom. After we talked for a while, Adam led me to a desk in a corner of the office decorated much like an Ikea catalog. Big bed, soft lighting, nice nightstands with stacks of curated coffee table books. While Adam wrestled with thick sheets of foam and latex stacked against a wall, I filled out Helix’s online survey. The questions ranged from height and weight (5’6”, zaftig) to whether I got hot at night (yes), or if I had any conditions like snoring or sleep apnea (no). I felt depressed answering “Do you have neck or back pain?” with “Always or most days.”
After peering at my answers, Adam began to stack the layers of foam accordingly. “If you think of a mattress like a layer cake, we’re changing around the order of the layers, the material in each layer, the thickness of the layers, and the density of the layers,” Adam told me. For example, a side sleeper with angular shoulders and hips would require greater “point elasticity,” so Helix would design a mattress topped with springier material.
Once he was finished assembling my mattress, Adam invited me to try it out. This is another thing about mattress shopping that bothers me: lying down in front of a stranger, even fully clothed and shod, makes me feel awkward and self-conscious. It shouldn’t, but it does. Under these circumstances, judging the comfort of the mattress was even more difficult.
As it turns out, people are pretty bad at picking the right mattress for themselves, as a 2011 study concluded. Often, what seems more comfortable at first blush is not more comfortable in the long run.
Funnily enough, my experience in the Helix showroom only underscores the findings of the 2011 study. On one side, Tishman had duplicated the feel of a mattress with a softer top like the one I have at home, and the other was based on my specific data. I liked the feel of the softer mattress better, but the mattress based on my survey answers molded to my back immediately—filling the space at the small of my back where the spine indents. My initial response was counterintuitive to what I actually needed as a back sleeper with scoliosis.
Could Helix, at some point, evolve to mail out wearables to monitor your sleep before making your mattress?
With about a dozen Helix employees typing at their desks just on the other side of a glass wall, and Adam and his PR rep looking on, I couldn’t lie there for long. I said my goodbyes and left the Silk Building, accidentally taking the wrong elevator and ending up in a maintenance space.
When I got home, I had my partner fill out the same survey out of curiosity. While we require similar temperature regulation and point elasticity, his answers indicated that he’d do well with a much firmer mattress and a much higher level of support.
Sometimes, in an effort to make decisions more precise, data-driven design ends up making things more confusing than they were before. It’s also tricky when data collection relies on self-reporting. On a scale from 1 to 7, I’d rated my sleep a 6. What if my sleep was actually subpar, and I just didn’t know any better? Or my partner, who sleeps much worse than I do—what if our current mattress was suited better for me than for him, and he was getting the shitty end of the stick? If he had a firmer mattress, would he stop snoring? (Helix does make “blended” mattresses for mismatched couples.)
Helix—like its competitor, Casper—professes to be the future of mattresses, at least among young people in urban areas. It’s convenient and offers a generous trial period, plus the idea of a custom-built mattress implies the kind of luxury that makes people’s ears perk up. But how far are we willing to take this? Could Helix, at some point, evolve to mail out wearables to monitor your sleep before making your mattress? When does it end? At what point do we say, “My mattress is good enough”?
I had previously felt just fine about the mattress I bought three years ago, but now I wondered what I was missing out on by not having a customized mattress. I wake up feeling awful at least half of the time, and I always just figured that was how life worked. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I have so, so much raw potential that would only be unlocked by a doze on the most prime of sleeping surfaces. Maybe we all do!
Just thinking about that makes me tired.