Crafting the Mid-Century Modern Rio Bed

Crafting the Mid-Century Modern Rio Bed

The elegant, Art Deco-inspired Rio Bed is one of our favorite pieces. Originally just one part of the Rio bedroom set, this piece was conceived by noted New York designer Leo Jiranek and introduced by Heywood-Wakefield in 1943.

Back then, it was only available in twin and full sizes; queen- and king-size beds weren’t introduced until the late 1950s. Today, the larger sizes of classic Heywood-Wakefield mid-century modern beds are among our best-selling items.

The Rio was the fourth original Heywood-Wakefield bed we put back into production. Doing so came with a number of challenges, but challenges our innovative team was able to meet without sacrificing the quality and craftsmanship so closely associated with our name.

Read on for a little more about the production of the Rio Bed, which serves as a great example of how modern technology can complement hand crafting to enhance the home furnishings experience. Also, we hope it provides some insight into our craft—and how seriously we take it.

Computerized Consistency

One of our priorities was to standardize production so that every Rio bed is exactly the same as every other one of the same size. We began its revival by reverse engineering a vintage full-size bed, disassembling it into its component parts and programming each piece into our CNC router. Having the parts computer-cut guarantees a consistent fit. If we build 100, they’ll all be identical. If we don’t run any for a year, then build them again, the new ones will be identical to the previous hundred.

This is in contrast to a physical plywood jig. With these, variations develop over time as the wood in the pattern ages and wears. So, in this phase of operations, computers have their place. However, the parts are still assembled, fitted, shaped, sanded, and sprayed by hand in building the final product.

Larger Sizes, Same Perfect Proportions

The most important challenge in creating queen- and king-size versions of the Rio Bed was getting the proportions right on the footboard assembly, with its distinctive raised panel on either side of the center panel. It took many hours of programming. There was also the top moulding running the entire width of the bed, as well as the kick panel at the bottom.

We didn’t just duplicate the raised panels and attach them to a wider center panel. Rather, the precise ratio between these panels and the center panel was worked out on the computer so that queen and king beds would have the same ratio between all the components of the footboard assembly as an original full-size bed.

It should be noted that the kick panel (the recessed portion at the bottom of the headboard assembly) is made in one piece today, rather than in three pieces as in the original bed. Although it adds to our costs, we feel this is more aesthetically pleasing.

Special Lumber Needs

In addition, the moulding on the top of the footboard was designed and is constructed in one piece. This moulding requires special lumber. We specify—and pay quite a bit extra at the sawmill for—what’s known as 8-quarter clear sap boards.

This refers to solid boards, 2 inches thick, with no visible defects like knots, mineral spots, stains, etc. Sap refers to the first one or two cuts of the saw, yielding lumber where the sap has most recently run and the wood is consequently free of the kinds of markings encountered as the saw gets closer to the center, or heartwood, of the log. Because we use our modern, clear Amber finish, we need lumber that doesn’t require a heavy stain coat to mask color variations and overly noticeable grain patterns in the wood.

When you consider that a queen footboard requires a piece of lumber more than 60 inches long, and a king needs a 76-inch piece, this can be quite a task. That’s a 5 to 7-foot board, and it has to be clear on both sides, since both the front and back of a footboard are visible (this is true of all our beds). It’s interesting to watch the selection process for this type of lumber, and I’ll digress for a moment to describe it.

The Lumber Selection Process

In a typical sawmill, logs are raised to the second story of a building which houses the saw, generally 6 feet in diameter and mounted vertically, next to a platform and a conveyor. Logs are moved up from outside on a conveyor.

The sawyer controls the saw from a cabin, similar to that on a tractor. He slices off a section, flips the log 45 degrees to make a second cut, then flips and slices the third, etc., until the log is squared off. After the bark is removed in this way, the next cut is the premium sap wood. These boards are cut the same way, i.e., sliced, flipped, sliced, and so on. Thickness is determined by customer orders, or, if no special orders are in, by standards at the sawmill.

The cuts proceed down an inclined set of rollers, where workers known as lumber graders stand  waiting to separate the cuts (right and left) into “firsts,” “seconds,” and other grades, depending on the color and quality of the visible grain pattern. The further into the log the sawyer goes, the more grain pattern and color variation is present. Needless to say, this is a highly skilled operation requiring a good deal of experience on the part of the workers.

At this stage, our specialty lumber is selected. As you might expect, this lumber is quite a bit more expensive than subsequent cuts. The sap lumber we use is a small percentage of the log, with perhaps less than 5 percent meeting our requirements. Light-colored woods like birch also require special handling and drying techniques to prevent discoloration and stains from developing in the wood during the drying process. For this reason, we use mills skilled in drying this type of wood.

Since not all mills regularly process birch, or meet the drying standards we require, we sometimes have to wait a few weeks for our special 8-quarter, 7-foot boards (there has to be enough length to cut off the ends). This is one of the reasons we quote about 10 weeks to build a Rio Bed (all our furniture is custom-built for each individual customer).

This is a good place to mention that all our lumber is North American Yellow Birch hardwood produced in New England. These forests are commercial enterprises that understand that their livelihoods depend on well-managed, ecologically-sensitive practices; it’s typical in the forest products industry to plant two trees for every one taken. Likewise, good soil conservation, water management… it’s one of the greenest natural industries around.

Always the Highest Quality

All Heywood-Wakefield furniture today, as in the past, requires quite a bit of hand labor such as fitting, shaping, and sanding. The Rio is probably the most labor-intensive product we make; just that moulding on top requires several hours of labor by human craftspeople, a highly skilled operation. We are fortunate to have several very experienced men and women who work in this capacity at our plant.

The Rio Bed, like other Heywood-Wakefield furniture, is truly built to last a lifetime. The lumber and craftsmanship are guaranteed to be of the absolute highest quality with each and every individual piece.

Looking for beautiful mid-century modern bedroom furnishings?



Leonard Riforgiato is a successful furniture manufacturing entrepreneur, a Miami resident, and co-owner of legacy furniture company Heywood-Wakefield.

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