Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bed Canopies


The idea of the bed canopy had its origins in the Middle Ages, when cloth canopies (known as "baldachins") draped the thrones and altars of emperors and religious authorities. Such baldachins symbolized power and authority. Wishing to assume the perceived authority associated with the baldachin, kings and queens followed suit and began holding court beneath what was to be called the "canopy of state".

The first bed canopies were in fact cloth canopies that covered what was then known as the "state bed", which was situated in a great hall and served as a place for royal sovereigns to greet visiting people of note. Thus, bed canopies had their origins in royal symbolism, but they served practical purposes as well.

In drafty medieval European castles in particular, bed canopies afforded both privacy and warmth, since it was traditional for servants to sleep in the great hall of the castle, along with the lord of the castle and the lord's family. Even when conventions dictated that the lord's sleeping quarters be moved to separate areas of the castle, servants still shared the lord's sleep chamber (for reasons of safety and availability).

As with the conventions of today that signify wealth and power, it was not long before the tradition of the canopy bed expanded into 16th century European households wishing to emulate royalty and nobility, eventually making its way to the New World.

Today, the canopy bed still evokes images of its noble origins. While the idea of a canopy bed may at first seem strictly traditional or romantic, there are different varieties of canopy and fabric that can easily combine to fit almost any decorating style. As a result, the look can be as over-the-top ornate or as crisply tailored as suits you.

Photo of Canopy Bed inside Pavlovsk Palace, St. Petersburg provided by creative commons license and courtesy of Erwyn van der Meer.


If you are lucky enough to have an especially spacious bedroom, a canopy is a great way to create a cozy retreat-within-a-retreat. The bed canopy I designed in the picture to the left is an example of a very elegant, rich design that suited this particular home's traditionally elegant style to a tee:

I've included it here because it has a lot of the elements that make for a cozy escape:
  • A beautiful oil painting hangs over the headboard and is situated where the homeowner will get maximum viewing enjoyment.
  • Swing-arm lamps and an art-light over the painting are practical and provide many options for ambient and task lighting. It's a good idea to include such lighting inside your own canopy, as you'd be surprised how dark the space can be (even with lamps on the nightstands). This is especially true if you elect to have drapery panels on the corners of your canopy and a "roof" panel.
  • A fabric panel behind the headboard enhances the "cocoon" feeling. This particular panel has discreet slit openings, allowing the mounting hardware for the lamps and art light to remain hidden from view.
  • A starburst "roof" panel in a coordinating blue silk fabric (right below) affords a lovely view from inside the bed, serene and yet visually stimulating.
In addition, this bed has only two side fabric panels because the homeowner wanted the intricately carved posts of this "rice bed" to remain visible. The number of panels that you choose for your own bed depends on how elegant you want the finished look to be, as well as how "enclosed" you want to feel. Do, however, remember to consider the sight lines within the bedroom when deciding whether you want two panels, panels on all four posts, or no panels at all. Just as a four-poster bed can be "too much" in a too-small room, so can side panels at the foot of the bed take up visual space and block your views.

Also, note that the finished height of your canopy need not be limited by the existing height of your bedposts. Many four poster beds these days come with a removable finial that unscrews from the main post. For this canopy, we simply removed the finial, inserted an additional 6-7 inch post segment that was stained in a polished cherry finish to match the rest of the bedframe, and screwed the finial back into place. A couple of tips to consider when deciding the final height:

  • You want to be sure that the finished valance at the top will not be hanging so low that people will be brushing their heads against it when getting in to bed. Eventually such contact will soil the fabric (and if your valance is trimmed, perhaps damage the trim).
  • You also want to be sure that the bottom of the finished valance does not hang so low that your view of the headboard and any artwork is cut off from a standing position.


If your bedroom is not large enough to accommodate a full canopy like the one pictured above, or if you just prefer something less elaborate, there are several alternative canopy styles from which to choose.

For example, a coronet bed drape (also known as a "crown canopy") like the one pictured to the left is a really nice idea for a sofa or daybed or for use in a room that's too small for the full canopy treatment. The coronet is grand but does not overwhelm the room and is perhaps less claustrophobic than a more enclosed style. Coronets can either be covered with fabric (left), or they can be showstoppers in themselves, designed to be seen (as in the more extended crown canopy pictured to the right). If you elect to go with the decorative coronet, they are readily available for purchase online.

Another easy option is a cornice board or shelf canopy over the headboard. In the picture below and to the left, the "cornice" is actually crown molding with pleated drapery, thus incorporating the canopy's structure into the room's existing architectural design.

An alternative would be to upholster the cornice in batting and fabric, with the fabric again draping down behind the cornice. This design is similar to a window treatment. In fact, if you have windows flanking your bed, you can even incorporate your window treatments into the bed cornice design so that it's one continuous designer treatment.

Other options would be to hang a piece of fabric from a drapery holder attached to the wall above the headboard and then drape the fabric over the sides of the headboard. Or, you could even suspend fabric panels from the ceiling, a good option if you don't have a four-poster bed but want the look of one.


  • Some four-poster beds come with a canopy frame already included, but if yours doesn't, that doesn't need to be a stumbling block for you. You can build a simple canopy frame to attach to the posts yourself (it will be covered with fabric anyway and so does not need to be furniture grade).
  • Do consider "merchandising" the interior of your canopy. Artwork or a starburst or other framed mirror would make a sparkling statement.
  • If you have a roof panel above the bed, attach a piece of inexpensive lining fabric or an old sheet to the top of the canopy's "ceiling". It will not be visible from the room, but will serve to protect the top of the canopy from dust.
  • If you do elect to have a top panel above the bed, attach the very middle at a slightly higher point than the edges (which would themselves attach slightly lower on the canopy frame). This avoids the illusion that the middle of the panel is "sagging" and will therefore feel less claustrophobic.
  • For the inside "lining" fabric of the canopy, choose a pattern and/or color that you can easily live with--remember, it's what you'll see before you go to sleep and what you'll wake up to every morning. An overwhelmingly busy pattern or bright red, for example, may grow tiresome more quickly than, for example, a tranquil blue.
  • If you intend to make the canopy yourself (complete with valance and "ceiling" panel) and you don't have an air compressor, seriously consider investing in one or borrowing or renting one. It will save you a LOT of time and effort.
  • If your side panels are on rings or removable rods (or are otherwise moveable), consider switching out your fabrics in the summer months or removing them altogether (leaving just the valance and roof panel). While richly-hued, heavier fabrics are delightfully cozy in winter, try something light and airy in the summer, like mosquito netting or a diaphanous tulle.
  • You can save money on your canopy by using bed sheets, lining fabric or even an inexpensive silk. Some Dupioni silks are an elegant steal (check out the Zimman's website, which has over 140 colors of Dupioni silk that you can purchase online for $16.00 per yard). Also, at least one bedroom in the historic Governor's Palace in Colonial Williamsburg features an opulent, billowy canopy of simple cloth panels in plain white, so you'd be in good company.


I hope I've shown you some options for a canopy that suits your particular style and captures the mood you want to create. A bed canopy can be visually arresting; provide a warm cocoon to escape to at the end of the day; or soften the hard lines of a metal or plain bedframe, making even the most austere bed assume a regal feel.

You spend one-third of your life in bed. With a little effort and imagination, you'll want to spend even more time there!
Copyright 2010 - All rights reserved - Pamela Yeaton


  1. I really love your blog , the bed is fantastic!

    storage beds

  2. I've always been a big fan of four-post beds. They can look stately and bold when unadorned, or cozy and luxurious when decorated with curtaining for a canopy. And of course, outfitted with a latex or memory foam mattress the feel of the bed will be as luxurious as it looks.