By: Marika Ramos
For aficionados of “Zen” style with bare bank accounts, the dream of achieving a truly Zen bedroom is often, well, just a dream. Thankfully, there are ways to get the look and feel of traditional Japanese design without the need for an enormous decorating budget, using simple hand tools, a little paint and paper, and a bit of creativity.
Before you begin your bedroom’s makeover, take stock of what you already have. Does your room have a nice view? You’ll want to play that up. Is your current bed (at least, the mattress) comfortable and in good condition? What sort of flooring does your room have? Can you live with it, or do you want to take it out? Do you have a few simple decorative objects that will go with the look you want to create?
Set aside what you want to keep, and toss the rest, or at least put it in storage; you won’t have a need for a lot of clutter in your new Zen room.
Now that you have a clear room, choose your colors. Earth tones, pale neutrals, or deep reds, golds, and black all work well in Japanese themed rooms. For a clean, modern look, choose lighter colors and earth tones; for a more mysterious room, go with dark colors and jewel tones.
Start at the ceiling, and work your way down. Modern Zen ceilings are light colored; you can create more interest by tacking up thin wooden strips across the ceiling to create simple geometric patterns, like squares or rectangles. If your ceiling sports an unwieldy light fixture, take it out and replace it, or cap the wires and plaster the ceiling smooth before you paint.
Another ceiling décor option is to cover the ceiling with thin sheets of parchment, or tack up bamboo or woven grass placemats to give the ceiling color and texture. Moldings can be left in place if they are a simple design, but heavily carved, ornate moldings need to be taken down, or at least disguised by painting them the same color as the walls.
Once your walls are painted in the color of your choice, move on to the floor. Carpet is generally not seen in Japanese style bedrooms, but if you can’t afford to replace it and it’s a neutral color, don’t worry about it. If you want to take it up, though, by all means, do!
Good flooring choices in a Zen room are wood (the faux wood planks available on the market today are an easy, affordable choice for those on a strict budget), tatami mats, bamboo “rugs”, and grass cloth. A combination of wood floors and tatami mats is ideal, but grass cloth rugs work just as well and give about the same overall “feel”.
Now you have a good backdrop for your room’s centerpiece-the bed! Here are some easy alternatives to the standard “headboard-and-footboard” beds that look good in Japanese style rooms, and don’t break the bank:
Platform beds. You can build a simple platform bed for less than a hundred dollars, using only four 2x8 boards and a large sheet of medium density fiberboard. Measure your mattress, and take three inches off the width and length to come up with the measurements for the box that will support the platform your mattress will rest on. Add four to six inches on all sides to figure out what size sheet of MDF you’ll want to use. Build a simple rectangular box, with no bottom, out of 2x8 boards, and position the MDF on the top of it. Use long wood screws to fasten the platform to the frame, and you’re finished! You can choose to coat the bed with polyurethane, or shellac it in whatever color you wish, or simply leave it plain.
Another option is a traditional futon mattress; they can be difficult to find in the United States, but if you happen to live in a good sized city, you can find at least a close approximation of one. Make sure you buy a washable cover for your futon, though, as it will be on the floor.
Of course, a plain mattress, straight on the floor, will work, too. Just be sure you flip it every week to eliminate mustiness.
Position your bed away from the wall, with walking space all around it. Try to avoid having the head of the bed pointing at a window, and never point the foot of the bed at a door! If you can, position your bed so that you can see both the door and the window from your place on the bed without needing to turn around.
Obviously, you want more than just a bed in your bedroom, right? Instead of using dressers or open shelves, choose cabinets and small, simple trunks to hold clothing, electronics, etc. Again, these can be built from MDF if you have the time and the ability to design your own cabinetry, or you can cheat and buy modular storage units and just stack them to suit your own needs. A good, simple look for using modular units is to line one wall with them, only about waist high. Then you have storage space, and a platform to display a few personal treasures, hold lamps, etc.
Speaking of lighting…try to use lamps with natural paper or grass shades. You can use paper lanterns, suspended in groups at different heights, to create a dramatic effect; you can also use simple globe lamps, or freestanding lamps placed directly on the floor. If you want to add a little non-traditional flair, put a set of rope lights (yes, the Christmas light kind) under the edge of your platform bed.
Finally, choose your accessories and soft furnishings. Paper, wood, or bamboo shades and blinds work well for window treatments; an aquarium in a corner will provide light and movement if your room needs it. Mirrors should be simple, preferably round, and positioned so they reflect something other than your bed. Limit the use of accessories to only a few items of particular importance to you; you don’t want to clutter the room with too many knickknacks, photos, posters, etc. Less really is more in Japanese design, and if you don’t have something worthy of display, don’t display anything at all.
Comforters, pillows, sheets, and the like should be neutral in color, simple in design, and hopefully somewhat textured in a modern Zen room. For a more dramatic room, though, use more dramatic colors and fabrics; even black and red satin will work, as long as it’s balanced by similar colors throughout the rest of the room. Try to avoid using cheesy novelty prints in a dramatic room; as cool as you think that golden dragon embroidered on that satin comforter is, you’ll soon start to hate it, and your guests will secretly think you’re childish. Japanese floral and fish prints might work, as will geometric prints of almost any variety. If you can’t find something you like and can’t sew, just choose a solid colored comforter and dress it up with contrasting pillows.
A final word on Zen bedrooms; they are kept scrupulously clean. If you cannot find it in yourself to make your bed neatly, pick up your clutter daily, and keep your room in order, you may want to rethink trying to live with a Japanese style bedroom. Then again, maybe seeing all that pretty, empty space will inspire you to improve your bedroom habits!