Is this vintage decor trend poised to make a comeback?
The sunken living room concept started in the fifties, picked up steam in the 60s, and by the 70s, was even a permanent part of one of the most popular TV shows! The “Mary’s apartment” set on the Mary Tyler Moore Show — shown below — was just one example of a conversation pit (and hers even included built-in bookshelves).
Ever since the 80s, the iconic conversation pit — in all its campy glory — has seemed seriously out-of-date. But if there was ever a time for this unique interior decor trend to make a comeback (against all odds!), now may be a good time!
Between our current love for the mid-century modern aesthetic and our screen time burnout, a sunken living room that centers in-person connection over video screens is particularly suited for this moment.
Have a scroll through a couple of decades of conversational kitsch — maybe it will inspire your next home improvement project!
1951: An early curved conversation pit designed by Bruce Goff
The first modern conversation pit is credited to architect Bruce Goff, a Frank Lloyd Wright protege, who reportedly started experimenting with the concept back in the 1920s.
Here’s a sunken pit in the living room of a truly distinctive home he designed in the early 50s. (From LIFE magazine – March 19, 1951)
1953: An early square conversation pit
This living room photo taken at the Miller house in Columbus, Indiana, is from the mid-50s, when the sunken pit fad started really picking up steam.
1959: Fifties conversation pit with red wrap-around couches
This square convo pit is a sibling to the one above, and was built for in House & Garden magazine’s Hallmark House No. 3 back in the fifties. (PS: Don’t miss A mid-century modern show home: H&G’s Hallmark house for 1963.)
Here’s what the magazine said at the time:
A brilliantly cushioned well in the floor is a new kind of conversation center.
The vexing question of where and how to arrange a conversation group never arose in planning this house. It was simply built into the floor.
This idea with classic precedents is perfectly feasible when architecture and decorating are fused.
The unsightly tangles of chair and sofa legs, the ubiquitous end tables, the traffic barrier are all missing.
Instead, the architect’s exciting concept of fluid and closed space has created inside the open living room a smaller “room,” compact and inviting, with the seating capacity of four 15-foot sofas.
Rich, textured silks from all over the world cover seats and pillows (in summer, all covers and the rug are removed and replaced by cooler colors).
For entertaining, flexible groups of chairs and tables are set up near the fireplace, but it is to the colorful center oasis that guests naturally gravitate for after-dinner coffee and talk and where members of the family retire for a relaxing hour with a book.
Conversation center provides a raft of seating without blocking floor area or vista through window. Marble coping makes handy counter for ash trays, glasses.
Padouk wood steps to conversation center are laminated with rubber strips to make them skidproof.
Floor-level view is uncluttered by furniture; even the underside of the plane is lacquered dark-red so it won’t be distracting. Only ornamental plants, accessories meet the sitters’ gaze.
1960: Mid-century modern lounging area
This sleek circular seating area is studded with orange silk throw pillows, and includes several tray tables in addition to a cylindrical table in the center.
1962: Mid century conversation pit with a groovy fireplace
This mod living room features a big fireplace and light green chimney right in the center of the action. We’re not sure how well the chat would flow with that flue blocking eye contact, though.
Bonus points for the green space-age tables that sit ready with big matching ashtrays. Fortunately, the room can get a little fresh air from the backyard’s adjacent low seating area.
1963: Vintage sunken living room with a medieval flair
This room is proof that not all the mid-century trends were even remotely modern! (Those light fixtures look like they came out of a dungeon in the middle ages.)
We love the velvety red velour upholstery on the inset sofa that curves gracefully around the center of the room. The area’s so big that there’s even enough space inside it for a dining table.
The curvy pattern made with old-school two-tone inlaid vinyl flooring gives the space some extra verve.
1965: A cozy sunken 3-sided sectional, accented with huge glass globe hanging lights
By the mid-60s, magazines started warning homeowners off of the trend. For all of its socializing features, there were some obvious flaws — the risk of injury ranking highest, especially given that these recessed areas rarely had safety rails.
As you can see through the images below, despite the possible dangers, this fad still had another decade or so of life left in it.
1966: A courtyard’s huge and super-dramatic patio-style sunken pit with fireplace
Randolph Wedding created this outdoor living room in the center of his circular house so he could control the view.
Each room surrounding it opens to the center with a covered deck. Below the circular rim is a sitting area with a fireplace and built-in benches. The glazed roof lets in plenty of sunshine.
1966: Retro Chromcraft Commander furniture set in sunken living room
While this mid-century furniture brand still exists (it’s Chromcraft Revington now), you’ll only find the iconic Commander line on resale sites these days (where pieces in good condition can, ahem… command top dollar).
Curved sunken living room seating area in front of a fireplace (1966)
1967: A modern living room concept
Embedded in a small fireside conversation pit with faux-brick style vinyl flooring, this peek into a sixties living/family room offers a glimpse of middle-class style.
1968: Furs & cushions for a soft and cozy conversation space
While this one doesn’t feature a sunken space, we thought that all of the fuzzy and furry floor-level pads and pillows around the stone fireplace certainly qualified it as a hippie-friendly convo area.
Textured carpet covered this sixties-style sunken conversation pit (1969)
1969: Oh-so-avocado! Fully carpeted mid-century conversation space
The stairs here don’t just lead to the sunken area, they’re an integral part of the room. The throw pillows (and faux Roman style fruit tray) invite visitors to sit down and stay awhile.
1970: Circle-themed 70s conversation pit
1970: Early open-concept living room with a sunken convo pit
This living room/family room seating area is nestled into a lowered area adjacent to the kitchen in this home.
The reddish/brown upholstery gives a nice burst of color to a room otherwise dominated by a charcoal-colored slate floor and grey/white palette.
1972: Fireplace in a carpeted sunken living room
The mottled shag rug with splashes of orange, brown and yellow is pretty much peak 70s style!
1973: A royal blue carpeted sunken living room
1973: Brightly-tiled sunken conversation pit with metal fireplace
1973: Cool retro reading pit with space-age curves
Embedded in a red home library — and heavily accented with white shag carpeting — this mod reading area shows that living rooms weren’t the only places these cozy sunken spaces could be found.
1976: Extra on every level! Deep and fully-tiled sunken living room
This multilevel, multi-story hexagon-shaped sunken conversation space features a fireplace that echoes the hex shape, and is completely tiled, to boot. (Ever faithful to the theme, even the wall tiles are shaped like hexagons.)
This is a later example of the conversation pit trend in its waning days. This one definitely seems more dramatic than comfortable… and more drained swimming pool style than living room?
1979: Retro step-down two-tier carpeted conversation area
This living room was divided into three areas on separate levels: a reading cove with banquettes and shelves, a built-in seating area with display cases for artifacts and sculpture, and carpeted steps that serve as seating, surrounding a see-through prefabricated steel fireplace.
This series of small spaces within the whole gives a feeling of intimacy for day-to-day family living. (From House Beautiful magazine, January 1979)