Sunday, February 18, 2007

Mattress Maker Goes Natural

Mattress maker goes natural

David Colker Los Angeles Times

Jose Lora works on a Vivetique mattress in Arcadia, Calif. The 31,000-square-foot factory produces 12,000 mattresses a year in addition to other sleep products such as box springs, pillows and comforters.

ARCADIA, Calif. — By a window with a view of a lake, two men hand-stitch a mattress pad in a time-honored manner by passing a footlong sewing needle back and forth through a frame.

Nearby, a worker stuffs a pillow casing with pure wool while another attaches mattress springs, one by one, to a grid.

But this is not a quaint bedding museum here. It's the factory of Vivetique Sleep Systems, a company that makes mattresses, box springs, pillows, comforters and other sleep products the old-fashioned way with natural fabrics and stuffings.

There isn't a speck of polyurethane foam, by far the most common filling for modern mattresses, in Vivetique's 31,000-square-foot factory across from a rock quarry (thus the man-made lake) in a nondescript industrial park that includes manufacturers, public storage units and a couple of strip clubs.

"Foam is a dirty word around here," quipped Scott Carwile, 47, who co-owns the company with his twin brother, Steve.

Although the Carwiles say they are devoted to ecological causes, their decision to specialize in natural materials has more to do with making a name for themselves in a highly competitive industry.

"You can't directly take on Goliath with his marketing money if all you have is a pebble. We had to pick a good, strong niche," Steve said.

It seems to be working. Vivetique's sales shot up 36 percent last year to about $6 million at a time when the mattress industry is in a bit of a rut: The number of mattresses sold last year rose 1.5 percent, according to the International Sleep Products Association. Revenue was up 7.5 percent, with the increase reflecting an upswing in expensive mattresses. Still, Vivetique is dwarfed by industry leader Sealy's annual revenue of more than $1.5 billion.

David Perry, bedding editor of the weekly Furniture/Today trade publication, said the trend toward natural mattresses, while small, seemed genuine.

"There have been isolated cases of natural being tried in the industry over the years without much success," Perry said. "But now you have Whole Foods and hybrid cars out there. This will probably be a bigger and bigger movement as we go forward."

Natural often means high priced, and Vivetique is no exception. While the average retail mattress cost is about $400, according to the international sleep-products group, Vivetique's queen mattresses start at $1,200 and go up to $10,000.

Much of the price premium is because of the hand labor involved in making a mattress of natural materials that can't withstand assembly-line machinery. While it takes a modern factory about eight minutes to make a mattress, Steve said, it takes Vivetique about 45.

The high prices probably haven't hurt the company. "The demand for premium product has been increasing," said Ryan Trainer, executive vice president of the sleep-products group. "As people get older, they are encountering sleeping problems. Getting a good mattress is a cheaper way of dealing with it in the long run than drugs."

On top of that, novelty sells when it comes to bedding. "It's like people who buy a new car every couple of years," he said. "There is an allure, a sexiness in a new solution in sleep."

Cathy Strull, a retired television producer living in Los Angeles, bought a Vivetique mattress and box spring about 18 months ago shortly after she moved into a new home with her husband.

"When we first got together, he had a bed that was so soft we kept meeting in the middle," said Strull, 52.

The Carwiles grew up in suburban Los Angeles, where their father, who worked at a box-spring factory, often took on home projects. In 1976, when the twins were in high school, he started a business to make mattresses, with their help, in the garage.

"Everything was by hand," Steve said. "We made one a week."

After six months, they had created enough demand that they moved the operation to a five-car garage. A year later, they were in a storefront.

In 1983, the venerable Crown City Mattress company, which was founded in 1917, went out of business, and the Carwiles bought the name and hired some of the employees. A few had been with Crown City so long, they remembered the era before manmade foam.

"They taught us how to make the cotton bed," said Steve, who became president in 1990 and reinstituted production of nonfoam beds for a small portion of the company's output.

Eight years later, when the twins bought out their father, almost all of the products were of natural materials. They changed the company's name to the more Vivetique — a name made up by a marketing company.

The move to the factory space came in 2005. They turn out 12,000 mattresses a year, plus other products. There are 33 full-time employees.

Even in this sterile space, there are homey touches. On a bed outside the main offices, a small dog named Scruffy lies curled up in a prototype of a wool-filled comforter. "The idea is to get it dirty," Scott said, "to see how well it washes."

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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