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Sleeping in Alaska: It’s No Simple Matter

Good bedroom design is crucial in the Land of the Midnight Sun

Written by Michael Diver

Getting a good night’s sleep can become a preoccupation for almost anybody. Think what it must be like for people who live for months of the year with 18 hours of sunlight each day—and, in other months, experience 18 hours of darkness every day.

For interior designer Elke Gustafson Mazzeo, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and still lives and works there, those extremes are routine. “When I travel elsewhere, it’s strange to see what other people regard as normal days,” she says.

The long days of summer sunlight pose a couple of design challenges for sleeping. One, of course, is keeping light out of the bedroom. Mazzeo recommends blackout draperies to her clients, and stresses the importance of fitting them properly. “Even an eighth of an inch reveal where the drapery hits the window molding can create a laser beam of light,” she says. That’s why she advises professional measuring and installation.

The other challenge may not be as obvious, but is also directly related to the long hours of daylight: noise. If it’s 10 o’clock at night, you might be ready for bed. Your neighbors, on the other hand, could be outside doing yardwork, or a future Steph Curry could be shooting baskets in his driveway. For a client with particular sensitivity to sound—and who works a demanding job with a punishing schedule—Mazzeo installed sound baffles on his bedroom walls and ceiling. She also recommended a white noise machine.

In general for Alaskans, Mazzeo says, “I think that when you have a very long day and you’re very active and enjoying the light and the change in the weather, when you do go to bed, you really need to feel relaxed and go to sleep quickly.”

The flip side of the long days of sunlight is the equally long days of darkness in November, December, and January. In December, residents of Anchorage experience only about five and a half hours of sunlight. November and January are a bit better, but only by an hour or so. Seasonal affective disorder is a real thing in Alaska, which not surprisingly has the highest rate of that malady in all the U.S.

Some of her clients, Mazzeo says, employ full-spectrum lightbulbs, sometimes known as SAD lights, to artificially create the effect of sunlight. Some alarm clocks are equipped with full-spectrum bulbs that light up along with the alarm. Clients also use SAD lights on their vanities, she says.

Mazzeo says it is more common for people who move to Alaska to struggle with the extremes in light. As a native, she says she adjusts to the seasons, partly because she gets outdoors and appreciates the beauty to be found year-round. (Spoken like a designer!)

For her clients, Mazzeo usually recommends a broad range of colors that they can apply seasonally. She likes to give a neutral palette to a room, then use accents to apply warm, comforting color in the winter and colors like blue and green in the spring to suggest rebirth and growth. She prefers to create a long-lasting design—she uses words like “thoughtful” to describe her approach—that can accept fresh or even trendy colors via throws, pillows, and rugs.

One other challenge, not related to light, is Alaska’s climate. It’s cold up there, you may have heard, and the months of heating a home can dry it out. Mazzeo stresses to clients that care must be taken to ensure their wood floors and furniture do not suffer. For that, she recommends a whole-house humidifier, which she terms “very important.”

She says shipping wood furniture to Anchorage in the winter is a mistake, because the change in temperature can damage it. Typically an Alaska-bound piece is shipped to Seattle, where it goes on a barge, then often sits for a time in a warehouse. For that reason, Mazzeo recently implored a client who was importing an expensive Israeli teak-and-cherry tub for her master suite to wait until spring to have it shipped.

Elke Gustafson Mazzeo, Allied ASID, is a designer for Coordinators Interior Design in Anchorage. Because CID was started by her mother, Mazzeo says she grew up “living design.” She designs both residential and commercial projects.