They say that everything that goes out of style comes back again, and the conversation pit is a prime example. Although it was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s, the origins of the recessed seating design can be traced back to several different cultures, from ancient China to medieval Spain. These sunken living spaces were designed so that large groups could comfortably lounge together with cozy rugs and cushions.
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. Today, the National Historic Landmark is open to the public as a museum.
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.
Architect Paul Rudolph renovated this New Haven, Connecticut, townhouse for himself with a conversation pit, houseplants, and artwork.
1952 Miller House, designed by Saarinen and Girard, is often seen as the catalyst for the pit’s popularity. Located in Columbus, Indiana, the home was built with a short staircase leading down to a sunken living room outlined with a single, continuous sofa. 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the design trend are varied—in some cases it wasn’t practical for families with children, and in others it simply felt outdated.
The Terrace Theatre, designed by Twin Cities–based firm Liebenberg and Kaplan, incorporated a sunken lounge into its design.
However, 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. Here, we’ve gathered some of our favorite contemporary celebrations of the conversation pit and sunken living room.
This Cupertino, California, 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.
Architect Nic Brunsdon renovated this original heritage cottage for a young family in the suburbs of Perth, Australia. The 3,229-square-foot home includes a sunken "garden room" with concrete floors and large sliding doors that connect the interiors to a sunny green courtyard.
In the sunken living room of this updated midcentury home in Portland, Oregon, a light-gray Neo sofa by Bensen harmonizes with warm wooden walls, ceilings, and floors, as well as a vintage rug with pops of red and mustard yellow.
London-based firm Paul Archer Design built this two-bedroom, two-bathroom home for artist and interior designer Zoe Papadopoulou on the site of a former garage. The sunken living room features built-in storage and furniture to prevent clutter from accumulating.
Designed by Montreal-based firm Chevalier Morales, Residence de I’Isle features a sunken living room with a multifunctional piece of built-in furniture that integrates a sofa, sound system, and television, and also contains a "secret door" that leads to a wine cellar. "[We incorporated this] as a
clin d’oeil to the midcentury tradition of built-in workstations," says architect Sergio Morales.
Designers David Leven and Stella Betts of New York City studio Levenbetts designed this bunker-like backyard house for their clients—and close friends—in upstate New York. Although the guesthouse appears as a single story, the floor level rises and lowers with the site’s topography. In the already stepped-down living area, more steps lead into a conversation pit framed by a sectional that the clients and architects designed together, which is upholstered in cotton velvet.
According to architect Peter Knight, cofounder of the Melbourne-based firm Taylor Knights, the sunken lounge in this renovated Victorian terrace house was designed with "slowing down and appreciating the environment" in mind. A custom, built-in sofa wraps around the wood- and stone-clad space, where a television is intentionally absent. "We wanted the client to be able to lie back and watch the clouds and the sky, to have conversations, to read a book, to play with their pets," says Knights.
In Valle de Bravo, Mexico, architects Javier Sánchez and Carlos Mar created a monolithic, concrete home inspired by Donald Judd’s minimalist work. Inside the three-volume structure, a living room with a conversation pit and library incorporates sustainably sourced parota wood.
51-1 Arquitectos built this 4,300-square-foot home dubbed Casa Serpiente for a young family in Lima, Peru. The sunken family room is enlivened by bright-orange painted floors and a nearby glass-enclosed atrium built around one of the site’s 25 existing trees.
Architect Ken Meffan lives in Rough and Ready, California, a tiny town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains where he spent a decade building his family’s home by hand. Rocks dug up during construction were saved and incorporated into the poured-concrete floors and walls. "If you make a building too perfect, it doesn’t give you that interesting feel," Meffan says.
This 1,710-square-foot family home in Cambridge, New Zealand, features three courtyards, an art gallery, and a coffee kiosk. In the living area, a cedar storage unit made by one of the residents features a five-by-five-foot sliding panel that conceals shelving and the television. The sunken sofa from the Houdini collection by King Living is a throwback to the owners’ 1970s childhoods.
The renovated, semidetached Victorian terrace where Australian architect Jeremy Bull lives with his family in Bondi Junction, Sydney, includes a conversation pit with a bespoke timber-and-leather banquette situated adjacent to a fireplace in the kitchen. "The sunken lounge provides a wonderful connection between our inside living space and our backyard," says the principal of Alexander and Co. "It is the perfect place for [my family of six] to sit together and hang out."
The Wriff House by Guggenheim Architecture + Design Studio is located on a steep riverside site in Portland, Oregon. The sunken living room delineates the spaces while keeping an open-plan layout. The minimalist lounge area also features a double-sided fireplace and expansive views.
Architect Matthew Hufft of Hufft Projects applied a ring of ipe around the perimeter of this fire pit on the patio of the Curved House in Missouri.
The outdoor area, which was designed in collaboration with Weston, Missouri-based landscape architecture firm 40North, features removable powder-coated aluminum benches upholstered in Sunbrella fabric.
Decades after Italian architect Ferdinando Fagnola codesigned a series of Brutalist villas on the Sardinian coast in the mid-1970s, he returned to compound with a group of younger architects to transform some of the structures into a home for new owners. The renovation by Turin-based studio PAT. includes a swanky mid-pool conversation pit—one of many maximalist ’70s features.
A waterfront conversation pit brings a touch of midcentury glamour to this two-story, seven-bedroom oasis designed by Choeff Levy Fischmann in Miami Beach, Florida.
Canadian firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects snagged a 2019 AIA Housing Award for the cedar-shingle Mirror Point Cottage near Annapolis Royal in the western part of Nova Scotia. The 1,700-square-foot lakeside getaway invites three generations of one family to hang out in a sunken outdoor kitchen that sits beneath the elevated home.