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The History of the Conversation Pit – And Why It’s on a Comeback

JFK

You’ve probably seen it in movies from the 60’s, or heard it mentioned jokingly in conversation: the conversation pit is infamous, yet not many of us know the real history behind it. And, are there any that still exist today? Let’s find out!

Origins and Inspiration: 

Also known as recessed seating, the conversation pit seems to have emerged in the 60’s and 70’s, but there is some evidence it existed much earlier. We know that conversation has always centred the design of our interior living spaces, from the beginning of history. In Ancient Rome, the triclinium – a small dining table surrounded on three sides by couches – was a dedicated space for food and talk. In medieval times, benches were added to the side of fireplaces to create a warm place for conversation. It evokes a number of other social gathering sites in the history of domestic design, from the ancient Chinese kang, a communal platform seating area and bed heated to stay warm throughout the day and night, to the Spanish estrado, a raised dais covered in rugs and cushions that was influenced by the Muslim presence in the medieval Convivencia period. These pieces of furniture and centralized room layouts could accommodate large groups, offering spatial efficiency as well as encouraging a convivial spirit. The Arts and Crafts movement picked up this tradition with “inglenooks”: basically fireplace nooks a la 19th century home.

Progress

Homes started to become less divided over time, as centralized heating made it possible to warm the entire house without needing to create small cozy sections to lounge in. Floor plans started to open up, creating one continuous room for cooking, eating, and relaxing. Then, to create a space for conversation amongst the openness of the open floor plan home, designers thought of the conversation pit. A ubiquitous name amongst mid-century design, Charles Eames, was a part of creating the first conversation pit. The idea was for these homes to be flexible: able to shift easily from having a dinner party to enjoying a solo morning coffee. The lowered lounge area encouraged guests to settle in and chat, something we’re unfamiliar with today, as TV’s have often become the central focal point of the living room.

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At the time, the conversation pit even made it into the JFK airport, designed in colourful cushions by Eero Saarinen under the fluid concrete vaults of the large open space. Crushed velvet was used in this instance, as it often was, inviting travellers to sit and chat before they boarded their flight. A 1963 Time Magazine article claimed that “there was hardly a blueprint around that did not include specifications for a large, shallow hole to be sunk into the living room floor”. There were, however, downfalls to the arrangement: both literal and figural. It could actually create separation between different party guests, and potentially be a danger to some if they weren’t careful. There were some notable cases of people falling in. 

The First Conversation Pit

The first conversation pit is largely credited to architect Bruce Goff, who designed a 1927 home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a sunken seating area. Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s, when leading modernist designers and architects including Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, and Alexander Girard began developing conversation pits and sunken rooms for both residential and commercial spaces. In the ensuing decades, the conversation pit became a popular living room typology. In 1952, the modern architecture patron J. Irwin Miller and his wife Xenia commissioned an extraordinary trio of architects to create their private residence. The conversation pit at the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana, was designed by Eero Saarinen with textiles by Alexander Girard. The home is considered one of the pioneers of the sunken living room. As an architect and textile designer, Girard utilised his skills to transform the bright airy space into a welcoming home. The house, landscape and interior were finished in 1957, and by this point Girard had become a close friend of the family and continued to be a part of the Millers’ life over the decades, greatly influencing their approach to living. Today, the National Historic Landmark is open to the public as a museum. The 1952 Miller House,  is often seen as the catalyst for the pit’s popularity: the home was built with a short staircase leading down to a sunken living room outlined with a single, continuous sofa. The pit was accessed by four steps, with no railing, and was intended to encourage socialising without interference from autonomous furniture. While not detracting from the meticulously considered decor, the conversation pit proposed a more intimate space to converse, while providing a new vantage point from which to admire the living environment. Stepping into a devoted space for conversation added an entirely novel dimension to the engagement with guests, both physically and socially.

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The home was very influential, and soon, sunken living rooms could be found across the nation. By the 1970s, the conversation pit hit the pinnacle of its popularity. The reasons for the subsequent decline of the design trend are varied—in some cases it wasn’t practical for families with children, and in others it simply felt outdated. At the height of its mass appeal, the conversation pit was featured on ​The Dick Van Dyke Show​ and in ​James Bond​ movies. By the late ’70s, some critics felt the feature to be more of an inconvenience and potential hazard. Author Irving Fang adds, in his 1997 book A History of Mass Communication, that the decline of conversation pits symbolized a shift in which people began to use their living spaces as media rooms — not as places for conversation and communion. The Bangor Daily News seconded this in the late ’80s, stating that designers at the time were transforming conversation pits, “a legacy of the aquarian age’s communal spirit,” into gyms, spas, and yes, media rooms.

JFK

The Designers

One of the designers, Eero Saarinen, was a Finnish-American architect and industrial designer noted for his wide-ranging array of designs for buildings and monuments. Saarinen is best known for designing the Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the TWA Flight Center in New York City, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the son of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. His father taught and was dean of the Cranbrook Academy of Art, and he took courses in sculpture and furniture design there. He had a close relationship with fellow students Charles and Ray Eames, and became good friends with Florence Knoll. Saarinen first received critical recognition while still working for his father, for a chair designed together with Charles Eames for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition in 1940, for which they received first prize. The Tulip chair, like all other Saarinen chairs, was taken into production by the Knoll furniture company

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Eero

Alexander Girard was the designer of the textiles. Affectionately known as Sandro, was an architect, interior designer, furniture designer, industrial designer, and a textile designer. Girard is widely known for his contributions in the field of American textile design, particularly through his work for Herman Miller (1952 to 1973), where he created fabrics for the designs of George Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames. His work also includes designing the La Fonda del Sol Restaurant in New York (1960), the Herman Miller Showplace: T&O (Textiles and Objects) (1961), Braniff International Airways (1965), and the Girard Foundation (1962), which houses his extensive folk art collection. He and his wife, Susan Girard, amassed a remarkable collection of artifacts consisting of folk art, popular art, toys, and textiles from around the world. There now exists the Girard Studio,  created by the Girard family to preserve and promote the design legacy and archive of Alexander Girard.

The Comeback of the Conversation Pit

Is the conversation pit having a comeback? Over the past few years, architects have begun to experiment again with creating these recessed spaces, often incorporating modern materials, fresh color palettes, and outdoor settings to make the typology feel updated. In Cupertino, California, a family home designed by architect Craig Steely features a conversation pit outfitted with a 250-square-foot configuration of Patricia Urquiola’s Tufty-Time sofa for B&B Italia. Overhead, flush-mounted LED strips demarcate the lounge area in the glass-walled house. Some are updating the tradition, and creating entire sunken living rooms that don’t have the same signature build in couch, and so feel like a modern spin on the design. 

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Now, let’s take a look at some modern takes on the conversation pit that will get you thinking it may be the time to install one yourself! While it’s tricky to achieve the look without digging straight down into your apartment floor, we’ve gathered some other ways to achieve a sunken look. They can be achieved without the same level of planning and structural work. Ultimately, it’s about creating an enclosed space for people to gather and share time together, that creates a dynamic focal point. The focal point isn’t just centred on one thing, like the television. The energy circulates around the corners of the space, framed by furniture and allowing people to face each other and share ideas. 

1. Modern Tufted Couches

For the full sunken-ball-pit look, find a couch made of components you can buy separately. It’s like a puzzle. You build around the edges with components that have backs and armrests, and then fill in the middle with ottomans. The higher-end brands will work with you to accomplish the look. The purple sofa in Steely’s California home is the Tufty-Time from B&B Italia, so while it creates the look of a custom build, can be achieved with store bought couches. Tufted couches now come in forms that are much more rounded and bulbous, creating an extremely cozy and inviting atmosphere. Part of the appeal of the conversation pit is it’s soft edges sense of engulfment in a cozy and comfortable surrounding of pillows. Achieve the same thing with a large sectional tufted couch that surrounds the living room area, making it feel like an intimate zone of exchange. 

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2. Floor Cushions 

Nowadays, throw or scatter cushions are an everyday luxury, used to bring colour and comfort to the home.  But they started as true luxury item, available only to the wealthiest. The earliest known is use is circa 7,000 BC, in the early civilizations of Mesopotamia.  Cushions were related to status – the more you owned the more affluent you were seen to be. In a time of discomfort for the majority, to be comfortable was to be wealthy. Although no cushions survive from this period, we are able to ascertain their style and usage from ancient wall art.    As dyes and fabrics were very expensive, cushions became individual pieces of art that represented the taste (and wealth) of the owner. Cushions from the Egyptian period are best known for being wooden or stone headrests.  In this way, they are closer to the meaning of the word ‘pillow’ which derives from the latin word ‘pulvinus’.  ‘Pulvinus’ shares its etymology with the word ‘pulpit’ – the raised standing platform in churches.   This is, essentially, what pillows or cushions were to the Egyptians – raised platforms for the head. Most famously, these hard cushions have been found in the tombs of Egypt, supporting the heads of mummies. Floor cushions can be used to create that lowered effect of the conversation pit without having to dig out the area in your floor. It’s lower commitment, and allows you to try out to layout and see it you like it!

floor-cushion

3. The Togo Couch 

Infamous in homes of artists and design aficionados around the world, Ligne Roset’s Togo was first designed in the ’70s and they’ve been producing it for the 40 years since. It’s a component sectional couch, so you can buy the single seater, above, or a longer couch-size version, and actually the exact sofa that Craig Steely has in his own home. Hailing from a long line of industrial designers, Ducaroy’s creative upbringing is likely to blame for his unique approach to silhouettes. Known for its slouched shape and quilted polyester upholstery, the seat is as fun as its name suggests. The French designer created the first Togo Sofa back in 1973, according to Ligne Roset—the luxury furniture brand that has sold Ducaroy’s famous foam-filled seat since its original conception. Not unlike Gae Aulenti’s Jumbo Coffee Table or Noguchi’s Akari Lamp, the Togo Sofa has reached full icon status. Available in a range of sizes and colors, the seat’s almost comical form lends a sense of ease and whimsy to every room it graces. Just take a look for yourself.

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4. Modular Sofas

The modernism movement has revolutionized since its inception the way we decorate and the furniture we choose for our spaces. But the history of the sectional sofa as we know it today, with its individual pieces made out of the same materials and connected together to create a single piece of furniture, has origins that go back to the early 1800s, according to some furniture experts. Historians (somewhat contentiously) assert that sectional furniture can be traced back to the turn of the 19th century to one very specific pocket of the United States: an area in Virginia near Washington, D.C. Thanks to the region’s heavy military influence, furniture that fared well on the battlefield — where it needed to be portable, easily separated, and moved from one camp to another — turned out to also fare well in the home. Local furniture companies began manufacturing three-piece sectional sofas, and the type was soon popularized, albeit just in the region.It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the sectional sofa as we know it today burst onto the interior design scene, definitively resolving the perpetual entertaining problem (at the very least from a seating perspective!) in living rooms large and small. As Americans started to embrace modern design, the sectional really took off. Newspaper articles of the era touted its ability to go from “a cozy love seat and a separate chair” to “three chairs” in an instant. Soon, other famous midcentury creatives like the dynamic designing duo Charles and Ray Eames, industrial designer Russel Wright, and acclaimed architect Eero Saarinen also began designing iconic sectional sofas. Using a sectional or modular sofa is a great way to be able to create the space you want, engulfing a section of the living room for cozy conversations. 

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5. Fluffy Area Rugs

Typically conversation pits are established by physically stepping down into to a sunken room, so if that isn’t an option, the space will need to be created visually by using accessories and furniture, such as an area rug. This will act to ground the area and as a focal point for the eye. The furniture should be situated around all four sides of the area rug, which will most likely result in a few “floating” pieces. (This is assuming that the rug is rectangular, however a round rug would also work.) People tend to gravitate towards a certain comfort level when decorating, which involves placing furniture pieces against walls, however creating this style will require a few floating chairs or a small love seat. Try to keep the heavier pieces against the walls and opt to float the lighter, more airy pieces. For instance, perhaps float a chair with hairpin legs rather than a large clunky couch. 

fluffy-rug

The conversation pit isn’t, however, for everyone. Living room design has opened up in so many directions, and we no longer have strict rules of design that dictate how we arrange our living rooms and entertain people. But today conversation pits are objects of fascination, relics of a time when living space was oriented not around a wall-sized flat screen and portable computers, but around looking at and socializing with other human beings in real life. If we want to get back to some actual face-to-face time, what better way to do it than in a cushioned burrow designed to host an intimate gathering?

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Over time, media has reinforced the connection between conversation pits and cool. In the film version of the Beatles’s Help!, John Lennon curls up in a sunken bed in the midst of a brown-carpeted apartment living room, complete with an arc lamp. John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein House, featured in The Big Lebowski as the abode of the wealthy hustler Jackie Treehorn, boasts a seating area of angular built-in lounge couches likely inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, Lautner’s mentor. Don Draper’s Manhattan apartment in Mad Men (circa 1966, actually a stage set) features a sunken living room with a long wraparound couch and thick carpeting.

Conversation pits are like any victim of taste: The kitschy, cliché object of one era will get adopted once more by a new generation that never had a chance to get tired of it in the first place. Circular couches are even popping up in startup offices like BuzzFeed and BKM as replacements for boardroom tables, transforming the earlier design vocabulary of leisure into one of labor. Work, after all, is another context in which we still have to be face-to-face. It’s fitting decor for companies that extend day jobs into 24/7 lifestyles.

Personally, I love the idea of the conversation pit. I think we are too often focused on screens these days, and creating a space that is entirely for the purpose of engaging your friends and family in conversation is a great way to get time away from them, and move towards genuine connection. Because of its representation in movies, it seems silly and a little over the top as an idea now, but hopefully the list of DIY conversation pit ideas I gave will give you inspiration to take back to your home. Creating a conversation pit can be simple and easy, and so worth your time. Whether you go all the way and create the recessed flooring, or just use an area rug to frame a cozy living room zone, I hope this article provided generative ideas on how to make your living room a true space for conversation! 

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