Futons get a bit of a bad rap; since they’re the go-to for college kids and first-time apartment dwellers, a lot of people don’t think of futons as “real” furniture, and will make the switch to a conventional sofa as soon as they can afford one. But not all sleeper sofas are like that ugly, metal-framed thing you had in your dorm room. In fact, many contemporary futons are indistinguishable from “real” sofas in terms of appearance and comfort, but have the added benefit of being able to turn into a bed.
When you hear the word “futon” you probably think of a cheap metal or wood frame with a floppy, lumpy mattress arranged on top of it. But more often these days the futon functionality is built into the body of the sofa itself, so the back and arms of the sofa can be adjusted or laid flat to turn the sofa into a sleeping surface. What that means is that newer futons look a whole lot more like an “adult” sofa, without the visibly cheap parts or obvious dual functionality. Until you need to bring out the bed, these sleeper sofas just look like sofas.
Modern sleeper sofas also do away with the fold-out mattress. While sofas that have a folded up mattress hidden under the cushions tend to look more sofa-like than conventional futons, those mattresses are very heavy and difficult to move, and are almost never comfortable, with uneven wear from where they’re folded and little support or padding. Rather than fold-out components, contemporary futons are more likely to have pull-out components, like trundle beds. This keeps the “mattress” from wearing unevenly, allows you to create a larger mattress than the seat and back of the sofa alone, and leaves a little wiggle room for creating a comfy lounge rather than a strict sofa/bed either/or.
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Early forays into this alternative type of futon produced sofas that were still pretty obviously futons, if not in the same way as wood or metal framed ones. With simple backs that unhinged to lay flat, these sofas offered a pretty good approximation of a full sized mattress. But they often looked boxy and frequently lacked arms or any real kind of definition, which presented exactly the same problem as the classic futon: they just didn’t look like sofas. But the “camouflage” has gotten a whole lot better, and the dual functionality a lot harder to spot. Many of them look every inch like a standard contemporary sofa, but have back cushions that fold back to create a traditional sleeper.
Hiding the dual functionality of sleeper sofas and futons has also led to some pretty cool modern designs. Especially on sleeper sofas or convertible chairs, arms that are designed to flatten out can add a distinctive modern flair and bold, geometric feel to what would otherwise be fairly simple designs. Convertible futon sofas that have parts that move independently also afford a level of customizability that you won’t find in more traditional furniture. With backs that adjust and flatten independently, they can even make a good alternative to traditional recliners, letting you and your partner (or friend, kid, or pet!) sit differently but comfortably on the same piece of furniture.
On the flip side, some minimalist modern futons really embrace their multiple functions, making the dual-purpose of the furniture a feature of the aesthetic rather than trying to hide it away. These, too, are unlike conventional futons because the form is as important as the function. A big subset of this style puts the folds of a large, single-piece cushion on display, allowing the futon-ness to show through in the curvy exposed lines on either side. Unlike many older futons, this feels like an intentional design choice rather than a constraint or limitation, and can add a nice funky touch to a room.
Even if you do want a futon purely for functionality, it can be worth looking for something other than the traditional futon-mattress-and-frame. There are a lot of options out there, each with their own quirks (and pros and cons, of course!), so it’s worth taking the time to think about how you’ll use the futon and exactly what you want it for. While none of them take long to adjust, if you really just want a quick, comfortable place for a friend to crash (or to catch a quick nap), it might be worth looking into something more like a modern daybed. These have a very stark, minimalist modern design, but offer something most futons don’t: a ready-to-use twin-sized surface that dual purposes as a sofa and bed, no adjustment needed and without the frills and old fashioned ornamentation you’d expect from a traditional daybed.
Whether you’re looking for a futon that will see regular use or something more convenient and comfortable than an air mattress for occasional guests, chances are there’s a sleeper sofa or futon out there that will match both your needs and your style. Keep in mind: multi-function furniture is the name of the game these days, and futons aren’t just for college kids anymore.