Actually, What Is a Futon?

published Sep 29, 2023
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a brown futon mattress on a wooden frame with a colorful quilt on the seat

When you say the word “futon” it immediately conjures up images of college dorm rooms, cramped first apartments, and young sleepers who currently don’t have to worry about stiff backs and necks in the morning. But, what exactly is a futon? (As in, what half-couch-half bed structure actually qualifies as a futon? And is that the same thing as a daybed…or a couch bed?)

Let’s dive deep into the world of multifunctional furniture — and convince you that you should reconsider the budget-friendly, space-saving, humble futon. Spoiler alert: The best futons on the market have come a long way since your dad’s college days and can actually be comfortable, functional, and quite cute.

Quick Overview

Is a Futon a Couch or a Bed?

A futon is a Japanese-style bed that can double as a sofa, which is particularly helpful in very small spaces like a studio. The mattress is pliable, and a futon frame can reposition upright to be a couch and flatten to be a bed.

What Is a Futon? 

A futon is a Japanese bedding style. It serves as a mattress for sleeping, but can function as a sofa during waking hours. A complete futon consists of a pliable mattress and a frame. In a sitting position, a traditional futon is folded up. You can easily flatten the futon out, turning it into a mattress, when it’s time to sleep. 

The traditional Japanese shikifuton, an unstructured mattress that can be folded, dates back centuries. Futons became popular in the United States during the 1970s because of their affordability, functionality, and compatibility with a nomadic lifestyle.

Futon vs. Sofa Bed vs. Daybed

Futons, sofa beds, and daybeds are extremely similar pieces of furniture. They’re all designed for sitting and sleeping, so it makes sense that they’re commonly confused for one another — but there are a few key differences:

  • A sofa bed (sometimes referred to as a sleeper sofa) usually has separate cushions for sleeping and waking. When you’re sitting on a sofa bed, the mattress is stored underneath the frame. When it’s time to go to sleep, you switch the seat cushions and the mattress. This typically involves pulling out the mattress from underneath the cushions.
  • A futon only has one mattress that is folded for sitting and unfolded for sleeping. There are no separate seat cushions. A futon’s headboard is just the back part of the mattress. 
  • A daybed has a headboard that is typically tall enough to accommodate decorative pillows and it often is boarded on all three sides. They tend to be larger and more expensive than futons. A daybed can be used as a bed and couch without having to shift or move anything out of the way.

Types of Futons

There are many different types of futons on the market. Here are some of the most common varieties:


Bifold Futon

A bifold futon features a mattress that folds in half. The simplest design, this type is perfect for a no-fuss small space dweller.

Credit: Wayfair

Trifold Futon

A trifold futon, meanwhile, is exactly what it sounds like: A futon mattress that folds into thirds. These are slightly more difficult to convert from sofa to bed and back again, but they tend to take up less space when folded. Trifold futon mattresses are typically sold separately from the bed frames.

Futon Bunk Bed

A futon bunk bed makes great use of vertical space. The top level is like a regular top bunk, but the first level is a foldable futon for lounging and sleeping. It’s the perfect choice for cramped apartments. 

Credit: Novogratz

Loveseat Futon

Loveseat futons take up the least amount of space of any futon in this list. Like a traditional loveseat, it will only accommodate two people sitting in very close quarters. This variety is typically only available in twin mattress sizes. 

Credit: Nirvana Futons

Futons with Storage

Some futon frames offer built-in storage underneath the mattress, which is ideal for guest rooms that double as office spaces or living rooms. 

Credit: Nirvana Futons

Armless Futon

An armless futon, as the name suggests, doesn’t have arms on either side. These futons have a sleek look and are ideal for tall sleepers. 

Are Futons Comfortable?

Futons can be quite comfortable, especially for people who like sleeping on firm or semi-firm surfaces. Of course, you get what you pay for: Well-made futons will likely be cozier and more supportive on your body than their lower-quality counterparts. However, there are some things you can do to make an uncomfortable futon more comfortable: 

  • Place a comforter or mattress pad on top of the futon when it’s unfolded (particularly when it’s your primary mattress). 
  • If you can feel the slats in the futon frame while you’re reclining, consider reinforcing the part the mattress sits on with a piece of plywood.
  • Make sure the mattress is perfectly lined up with the frame. If it’s askew, you’ll probably feel every bump and gap. 

How to Style a Futon

1. Embrace whimsy and style.

Futons are known for their practicality and functionality, but that doesn’t mean they can’t reflect your personal style! Vintage design aficionado Janine Genower dressed up the futon in her U.K. townhouse with fun accent pillows and a colorful retro crocheted blanket. 

2. Go neutral.

An old futon mattress perched on top of a DIY wooden platform bed frame with crisp white bedding makes a chic and functional guest bed, as evidenced by this amazing DIY from Chatfield Court.  

Credit: Emma Fiala

3. When in doubt, add a throw.

This futon situated in a Chicago studio is styled with a neutral striped throw, which can conveniently be taken from decor to snuggly blankie when used as a bed.