House of Kingsdown

The 120-year-old bedding maker embraces current fashion when it comes to mattress design.

Kingsdown Chair Mike James and his wife and inspiration, Natalie, strike a pose in the showroom window at the Las Vegas Market.
Kingsdown Chair Mike James and his wife and inspiration, Natalie, strike a pose in the showroom window at the Las Vegas Market.

It’s about two weeks before the Las Vegas winter market, and Kingsdown Chair Mike James is already at the World Market Center. Why? He’s eagerly awaiting the last two beds to display in the showroom window. For him, it’s the most crucial element because it lures buyers inside.

James waits with the impatience of a designer during New York Fashion Week prepping models for the catwalk. But for him, his models are his mattresses, and this is Kingsdown’s Winter Season — everything is on the line.

“I’m not leaving Vegas until these two beds get here,” he declares.

Admittedly, James has a reputation in the bedding industry for being something of a maverick, someone who’s not afraid to take risks, not afraid of bold looks — and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I walk into a mattress store, if my eye doesn’t immediately go to a Kingsdown bed, then I’ve failed.


Window dressing

That same philosophy is behind the Kingsdown showroom window, themed “Style + Substance,” at the Las Vegas Market. “We want people to walk by that window and go, ‘Wow, OK, these guys are different. We have to go in and have a look,’” James says.

The delay on the two beds for the window was the last-minute addition of a new and unusual material — boiled wool.

James was inspired to add boiled wool embellishments to the Vintage Couture collection after seeing the same look in furniture, such as fuzzy chairs by Four Hands, and in fashion — a pair of his wife, Natalie’s, custom boiled wool Converse sneakers, which hung on a mannequin in the showroom window.  

“We started playing around with boiled wool for the handles and the tape,” James says. “And we got it to run through our sewing machines. … So, now we have some really funky high-end looks.”

Originally, he was only going to make boiled wool bases in keeping with the trend for beds to look more like upholstered pieces of furniture. “At first, we were using velvet as the tape, and I had ordered some white velvet, but it had too much stretch. So, we couldn’t put it through the machine,” James recalls.

So, they took a fresh look at the boiled wool for the tape and handles, cutting the roll into a 5-inch width. “We went to our closer and he ran it through the machine, and he said, ‘Yes, I can put this boiled wool on a mattress. No problem,’ ” James explains. “Then all of a sudden, we’re like, ‘We gotta rebuild.’ That’s why we’re waiting for two beds; we had to rebuild the two that had already left for Vegas.”

The result: a distinct showroom window featuring three styles of Vintage Couture. “One slightly more traditional, one slightly less traditional and one slightly more modern,” James describes, “and all in the same build, with three different cover packages and two different colors of boiled wool, white and black (for the handles, tape and bases).” Voila!

Creative process

James is quick to credit his wife Natalie, one of his key sources of inspiration, for helping him develop fresh, new styles. “We’re always on the lookout for something that is fashion-forward and cool in look, that we think we can take the design of and make a mattress border out of it,” he says.

Their inspiration comes from fashion, furniture, carpet, drapery … even high-end wallpaper by Missoni.

Kingsdown Design Mavericks. For the Vintage Couture collection, CT Nassau designed a gray and white ticking inspired by modern artist Brendan Murphy.
For the Vintage Couture collection, CT Nassau designed a gray and white ticking inspired by modern artist Brendan Murphy.

“At Harry Rosen (a luxury men’s retailer), they know me because I’ve been in the store so many times,” James says. “I will stand and look and from across the room, I’ll see a blazer or a shirt, or I’ll literally go through all the pocket squares. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used a really nice pocket square as inspiration.”

The white and gray CT Nassau ticking in the Las Vegas showroom window was inspired by modern artist Brendan Murphy, particularly his 22-foot Boonji Spaceman sculpture installed on the pier of Hodges Bay Resort & Spa in Antigua, a Kingsdown client.

“That ticking gets me motivated because I see it and know it’s a game-changer,” James says. “It’s something a high-end furniture retailer that hasn’t done business with us in the past and maybe hasn’t come into our showroom, but maybe will walk by our window and see those beds and go, ‘Those are current-looking covers. That’s the type of furniture I’m buying. … These guys know what they’re doing. I’ve got to walk in the door.’”

How did James develop his keen eye for style? He had a great teacher: Natalie’s father, Hugh Owen of Owen & Co., which merged with Kingsdown Inc. in 2018 to form The Kingsdown Group, headquartered in Mebane, North Carolina since 1904. “He really instilled in us, when we started taking hold of the business, that we needed to take it in a different direction,” James says.

Owen & Co. was founded in 1995 and operated in Canada under the Kingsdown, Bassett and James & Owen brand names.

In an interesting twist, James started out as a hockey player. He’s the former goalie at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, and he also played minor league hockey in the United States. Even then, he had his own style. “I would say from a dress standpoint, I always tried to dress a little bit differently,” James recalls. 

Now he uses both his singular sense of style and his teamwork approach to help shape Kingsdown.

All in the band

James’ design team consists of his wife, Natalie, along with David Ballantine, vice president of national accounts and product development for Kingsdown Canada, and John Farnham, senior vice president of product development at Kingsdown.

“Very rarely can a band make music with only one person playing an instrument,” James says. “We have a four-piece band here of which I happen to be lead singer, but all of the other players are very important.” And he is quick to credit Frank Hood, CEO of Kingsdown, and the board for supporting the fashion-forward product development moves.

Natalie James’ contribution comes from her fashion perspective.

“I feel that it’s important to take inspiration from the fashion industry,” she says. “And to just be aware of your surroundings and when you see something creative, go with it. When you’re moved by something, go with it.”

While she gravitates toward more traditional paisleys, her personal style leans more contemporary, such as the boiled wool Converse sneakers.

These antique sewing machines in the Las Vegas showroom window reflect the history of Kingsdown, established in 1904.
These antique sewing machines in the Las Vegas showroom window reflect the history of Kingsdown, established in 1904.

“I’m more modern with my approach to fabrics, so I might take two and a half steps forward, and Mike might pull me back to two,” she explains. “I get really, really excited by what I see, and he brings that back into how we can market it and make it work for our industry and for our mattresses.”

Farnham is James’ opposite. “I am the foil in some cases to Mike,” Farnham says. “He is the ‘what if,’ and I am the ‘yes, but.’ I’ve got 32 years of manufacturing experience, so I’m the one who translates the idea into something that can come out the door and go on a truck. So, a lot of times I’m the guy who puts up the roadblock, but the challenge is to find a creative way to meet the same goal.” 

James will float an idea to Farnham, and it’s Farnham’s job to build out a spec that gets as close as possible to what James is asking for, or to suggest an alternative. “We’re constantly creating,” Farnham says.

Finally, Ballantine balances all three band members. “The designs I select are oftentimes very different from what Mike selects,” he says. “I typically find things that are complementary, but not necessarily the same.”

Ballantine says he tends to be a little brighter and busier, and James tends to be a bit more conservative.

“What we do as a group is take all those ideas, put them together and find pieces that work in conjunction with each other,” he says. “Natalie puts on the flare and the finishing touches. It’s a really fun process.”

What’s next for Kingsdown in the realm of design?

With a gleam in his eye and a sneaky, dimpled smile, James will only reveal, “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

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