I’ve taken COVID in New York very seriously, which means limiting non-essential errands or interactions. Yet here I am, sitting on a setee in a cavernous room, ethereal music playing in the ether, while Oliver Ankar, director of Hästens Sleep Spa in New York City, kneels in front of me and slips cloud-like booties onto my bare feet. Across from me is Linus Adolfsson, founder of the Sleep Spa, which houses all the Swedish mattress company’s blue-and-white checkered offerings. The soothing atmosphere where it’s perpetually twilight splits the difference between showroom and laboratory—Adolfsson serving as head scientist, and me the test subject. I gave myself a pandemic pass on coming here because I want to find the perfect mattress, if such a thing even exists.
For most of the past year, my sleep has been terrible. I know all the things that could be standing in my way: blue light emitting from my smartphone and TV before bed, drinking caffeine in the afternoon, dehydration, tippling too late at night, and, of course, stress. Those are more or less under control, though you’ll understand if my stress-o-meter is all over the place.
Ankar hands me a sanitized pillow that I carry with me as I test drive bed after bed. With each new mattress, I’m encouraged to shimmy my hips and shoulders to settle in. The idea is to find a bed where my spine is straight with enough support in the hips so they don’t sit too high nor sink in, which would create a slight V shape. I try six mattresses, including one that costs—brace yourself—around $390,000 (the starting price at Hästens is $7,000).
The handmade mattresses are made with natural materials, including wool and horsehair, balanced against a precise array of springs. They’re some of the nicest things these old bones have ever laid on. (Before you say that the price tag influenced my fondness, yes, you’re probably right, but I’ll also say my preferred mattress at the end of the day was at the lower end of the price scale.) I joke with Adolfsson that if I had a Hästens, I’d never get out of bed. He tells me it has the opposite effect. These mattresses give you such an amazing night’s rest that you bounce out in the morning.
Being here reminds me of shopping for a new fancy blender or getting a tour of a great gym: You get hopped up on the idea of getting healthier. We know that sleep is restorative, and yet people who would sooner miss their anniversary dinner than skip leg day will still skimp on sleep. For me, pandemic in the winter when there’s scant daylight means nights and days bleed together. And some of what Adolfsson says hits hard. Mornings are a crapshoot. Am I well-rested? Did I sleep on my shoulder funny? I like my mattress at home well enough, but I realize that, in retrospect, the three minutes I spent lying on it in the mattress store in the strip mall was probably not enough to know if it was the one. For context, I’m contemplating all this while lounging in a bed that costs more than some houses.
To woo me out, Ankar promises a to-go espresso and lets me keep the booties. On the way home, I wonder how many stories I’d have to write to afford a new favorite piece of furniture. Not all of us are able to shimmy into a Hästens mattress, and we may even be buying our next bed over the internet (more on that, later), but Adolfsson has some truly Scandinavian ideas about how we lay our heads down to rest.
Men’s Journal: A lot of us hold onto our mattresses for a long time. How do you know when it needs replacing, and what to look for in the perfect mattress?
Linus Adolfsson: The first question I ask every person when they come into our space is: What’s your favorite object? If their wife is with them, they say my wedding ring. Otherwise it’s their house or watch. The obvious answer should be your bed, and it doesn’t need to be a Hästens bed. You should always wake up feeling better than when you went to bed. If we wake up with stiffness—tight shoulders, hips that hurt—that’s when I’d start paying attention to my mattress. It’s hard to get ahead in life and create flow in life without just waking up and feeling rejuvenation in your body. In Sweden, people spend more money on mattresses. They’re considered the most important piece of furniture in the house.
Conventional wisdom has been that a firm mattress is better for your back. Is that right?
For spring mattresses, you want springs that are sensitive enough to respond to your body weight, but strong enough to lift you back up. Depending on whether you sleep on your back or your side, you’ll want to have a neutral spine, with the hips sinking into the mattress. It helps activate the central nervous system to allow you to be deeply relaxed. Foam is conforming, but it won’t give you that support. It’s that harmony of pressure and lifting. I believe people should be in beds with springs that give you some form of support. When it comes to a pillowtop, those flatten out over time, so if you get a firm mattress with a soft pillowtop, eventually you’re left with a firm mattress.
Is there a break-in time for mattresses?
Conventional beds don’t have a break-in period. [But] a bed that uses natural materials like cotton, wool, and/or horse hair will conform to your body over time. It takes a little while to connect and harmonize with that.
How do pillows fit into all this?
At Hästens, we use neck pillows. Most people make the mistake of having their shoulders on the pillow. The shoulders should be on the bed, and the pillow should hold your neck and the weight of your head. Usually you only want to have one pillow and have it only lift your head. Men typically have thicker shoulders and need a higher, denser pillow to support more weight on their neck. And side sleepers require a higher pillow because it takes pressure off the shoulder. The goal is to align the neck, so if you have a soft bed and the shoulders sink into the mattress, you need less pillow. If you have a firm bed and your shoulders sit on top of the mattress, you need more pillow.