Alumni & Friends
When Charles Hall (B.A., ’67; M.A., ’68) invented the modern waterbed as an industrial design student at SF State 45 years ago, little did he realize how his invention would shape the rest of his career.
Designing and manufacturing fluid-filled plastic and fabric enclosures led to Hall’s work on high-performance inflatable watercraft. “Everything I’ve done seems to revolve around water,” he says.
Living in a rickety Haight-Ashbury apartment in 1968, Hall was enrolled in the industrial design program, which “was a really eclectic thing,” he recalls, “where you could bring together things of interest.” As his master’s project, Hall designed furniture to eliminate pressure points that cut circulation and cause discomfort. His first effort? A cornstarch gel chair. It weighed more than 300 pounds, and “started to rot after a while and smell,” he says. “Jello was no better and more expensive.”
So he turned to water — and beds, where weight wasn’t much of a concern. His invention — the “pleasure pit” — was an immediate hit with friends. After pitching the product to the nation’s big mattress manufacturers without luck, he began manufacturing them himself. “We made ’em and sold ’em and delivered ’em,” he says. His company, Innerspace Environments, eventually operated 32 retail stores in California.
Waterbeds, though popular, proved a tough way to make money, with patent infringements and competition from cheap imitators. Says Hall, “The public didn’t know what to look for. A $29 bag of water is not the same thing as a $500 bed with a frame, a safety liner and a heater.” Hall eventually won a $6 million lawsuit for patent infringement. But by then his patent had expired. The waterbed wave had peaked (in 1987 with 22 percent of the mattress market) and receded.
Hall wasn’t done with water or inflatable plastics. He was busy with his company, Basic Designs, developing outdoor products with another industrial design grad, Clay Haller (B.A., ’95). The two met when Hall gave a guest lecture on campus. “Clay’s a great testament to always hiring someone better than you are,” Hall says. One of their most prominent products was Sun Shower, a solar-heated portable shower in a bag for campers.
Hall sold Basic Designs and launched another business. Today he and Haller are partners in Advanced Elements, designing, manufacturing and wholesaling products such as kayaks and paddleboards, with a mix of rigid elements for performance and inflatable structures for portability. Clients of their Benicia-based company include REI and West Marine.
Hall long ago closed his waterbed business but is confident his invention transformed the mattress industry, placing greater emphasis on comfort, adjustment and heating. And Hall, who divides his time between Washington state and California, still sleeps on waterbeds — three in fact. “In each house I have a waterbed. And you know what? I wouldn’t sleep on anything else. They are the most comfortable bed around.”
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