Sit down. Let’s talk. The conversation pit is back

With feelings of isolation exacerbated by a yearslong pandemic, many people view conversation pits as the ultimate symbol of intimacy. (Photos: NYTimes)
Betcha Dela Cruz-Atabug did not want a normal living room.

She wanted a place that could spark deep conversations between friends, somewhere that could serve as the ideal listening den for her husband’s vinyl collection, somewhere free of screens and the ailments of modern life. So when she saw the sunken living room of her current home while she was house hunting in 2019, she knew it was just right.اضافة اعلان

Inspired in part by the 1960s-era interiors of the show “Mad Men,” Dela Cruz-Atabug turned her living room into a conversation pit. With the help of her husband and son, she took out the fencing that encircled the space (“It looked like a crib,” she said), stained the wood a darker color and added burnt orange cushions. It cost her around $500.

“This is where we come together and bond. We read, listen to music and drink coffee and wine. There’s no TV to talk over. We feel like we’re connecting more here,” said Dela Cruz-Atabug, 46, who manages a law firm in Diamond Bar, California.

A conversation pit is an architectural feature that typically has cushioned, built-in seating and is constructed below floor level. They were popular in the US throughout the mid-20th century, in part because architects and designers saw them as a way to avoid the clutter of furniture. The pit was not limited by geography or site — it could be found carved into a New York City airport, or in a home in Indiana.

They often functioned as indoor playgrounds for adults, sometimes the place for drunken antics. And yet, they evoked chicness and elegance. Below ground, they were elevated.

Today, conversation pits are making a resurgence. With feelings of isolation exacerbated by a yearslong pandemic and the omnipresent digital screens of work from home, many people view conversation pits as the ultimate symbol of intimacy and a step back toward a simpler time. While some homeowners are going all out and constructing conversation pits, for renters or people who simply do not have the resources to transform their living rooms, social media has become a place to moon over them, allowing people to vicariously sit in them by way of Instagram and Twitter feeds.

The peak of the pit
One of the most well-known conversation pits of the 20th century is in the Miller House, a private residence for architecture patrons J. Irwin Miller and Xenia Miller in Columbus, Indiana, completed in 1957.

The pit is glorious — it features five steps down into a sea of carpeting and pillows, and the slipcovers were swapped out depending on the season. The interior of the home was designed by Alexander Girard, “the perfecter of the conversation pit form,” said Deborah Lubera Kawsky, an art historian and author of “Alexander Girard, Architect: Creating Midcentury Modern Masterpieces.”

Because Girard was director of design for Herman Miller’s textile division, but also trained as an architect, he had an “expansive conception of interior design, one that was inextricably linked with the architecture,” said Kawsky.

Many early sketches of conversation pits also featured images of lit cigarettes and martinis, Kawsky noted. “Entertaining was very important at the time. Designers were trying to show how these architectural forms could enhance that,” she said.

But eventually, the pit lost its sleek and sexy image.

For one, some people started to realize that it could be dangerous. As a 1963 TIME article put it, “At cocktail parties, late-staying guests tended to fall in. Those in the pit found themselves bombarded with bits of hors d’oeuvres from up above, looked out on a field of trouser cuffs, ankles, and shoes. Ladies shied away from the edges, fearing up-skirt exposure.”

The rise of the television was another factor. Television sets became mainstream fixtures in American homes by the latter half of the 20th-century, and living rooms started being built around them, quickly making obsolete the conversation pit and its purpose.

“The pendulum swings on these architectural styles, and people eventually want to follow the new styles. As the conversation pit started being associated with a bygone era, people let it go,” Kawsky said.

‘Like a huge playpen’
For those who are not fans of 1900s décor, today’s conversation pits have been modernized — they are often without shag carpets, have minimalist color schemes and can even be found outdoors.

Kristin Korven and Jeff Kaplon of Part Office, a design studio, created an all white conversation pit in 2019 for the Los Angeles home of Geraldine Chung, who owns a fashion boutique. The initial design decision, Korven said, came about because the space itself was small, and they wanted to make it feel like it had more volume.

Chung had been “obsessed” with conversation pits for years, she said, and when she learned it would be too difficult to raise the ceiling in her living room to make it more spacious, it was the ideal excuse to install a conversation pit.

“I thought, ‘If we can’t go up, let’s go down,’” said Chung, 45.

 “It’s just so nice having a living room where you’re not praying to the altar of a giant LCD screen,” Chung said.

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