During the COVID-19 pandemic, an obsession has developed among people who are extremely online with an interior design feature whose heyday occurred more than 50 years ago: the conversation pit.
Over the past year, there has been someone taking to Twitter to call for the return of this ’70s staple every few months, and each time it triggers an avalanche of likes, shares and comments. It happened in December of last year, then again in February. Finally, another tweet surfaced just last month.
But why? Where does this fascination come from? Is it a product of our pandemic-induced isolation, or was COVID-19 simply the push this nascent revival needed to go completely viral?
Conversation pits and sunken living rooms were very common from the 1950s until the 1980s, but they drew inspiration from much older design forms, including traditional gathering spaces from ancient China and medieval Spain. The pits initially gained popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, but the 1970s is the period most closely associated with the design.
The Miller House in Columbus, Ind., is seen by many as the origin of the conversation pit’s widespread popularity. Built in 1952 and designed by Finnish American architect Eero Saarinen and interior designer Alexander Girard, the house features an iconic sunken living room lined with one continuous, custom-made sofa. In 2009, members of the Miller family donated the home and many of its furnishings to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and it has been open to the public since 2011.
After a couple decades of dominance, the conversation pit fell out of favour for a variety of reasons. Despite their purported utility for parties and other social gatherings, the pits had their limitations from an entertaining perspective. Placing guests at different elevations created several issues, which, as this short TIME magazine piece from 1963 notes, included unflattering angles for anyone wearing skirts or dresses, eye level for one group lining up with the feet of the other, and the potential for stray pieces of food tumbling down on you from above.
The safety issues were even more troubling. Especially at night – or after a few drinks – conversation pits represented a dangerous hazard for anyone who might happen to misstep and fall in, and they were a nightmare for homeowners with small children or pets. This led many people to fill in their sunken living rooms in an effort to avoid injuries and potential lawsuits.
However, that wasn’t the end of the conversation pit. Many vintage examples live on in homes from the 1960s and 1970s that escaped remodeling, and a comeback in recent years had led to some notable modern examples.
The latest surge in conversation pits’ popularity has been attributed to a few different factors. The COVID-19 pandemic and its never-ending cycle of lockdowns and quarantine has left many people yearning for in-person social interaction like never before, but as Kyle Chayka noted in a 2017 article for Curbed, this nostalgia for face-to-face time predates COVID-19:
“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?”
The conversation pit’s viral fame across social media in recent months might also have something to do with a longing among Millennials and older members of Generation Z – many of whom feel like they have been priced out of homeownership in the major metropolitan centres where they live – for the comforts and status symbols of past generations. In this case, that means large homes with over-the-top design equipped for near-constant entertaining.
“In lockdown, we’re all hankering after connection, socialisation, space to breathe and most crucially, lush, retro homes that aren’t mouldy rental hellholes,” Nathan Ma wrote in an i-D magazine story from earlier this year. “(Conversation pits) remind us of what a home can be. Spacious, roomy, and somewhere to meet, not just to live.”
Another explanation for the conversation pit’s resurgence is even simpler. Styles frequently come in and out of fashion – going from hot, to not, to hot again as they gain retro or vintage status over the course of several decades. Perhaps, as Chayka wrote back in 2017, the conversation pit is simply the next historical fad to re-enter the public consciousness long after its popularity peaked:
“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.”