This morning, my wife told me we needed to talk. To any married person, or really any person in a relationship, this is not a good sign.
We needed to talk about certain targeted ads she'd been seeing recently for conversation pits.
I knew this was coming.
What's up with conversation pits?
Aside from the stigma of being basked in orange and brown shag carpeting and swimming in dry martinis, conversation pits serve a very timeless purpose as a gathering place for people. While their creation is often credited to architect Bruce Goff, who first implemented the pit in 1927, their full intent as a living room centerpiece wasn't realized until 1952, by architect Eero Saarinen and designer Alexander Girard.
Over the following two decades, conversation pits skyrocketed in popularity until they slowly died off and were largely non-existent as a mainstay of design into the 90s and onward.
The term is quite literal. Conversation pits are... sunken pits, usually in a den or living room designed with gathering in mind. Conversation pits are meant for people to come together and spend time with one another.
Which is why they've been so popular again recently.
How do I people again?
I don't need to explain what all has been affected by the pandemic. At the core of it, people have been staying in their homes more than they ever would have pre-pandemic. They've also been socially isolated more than they would have pre-pandemic. No matter where you are in the introvert-to-extrovert spectrum, chances are the pandemic has forced you into a homebody lifestyle.
And while Zoom happy hours are good to fill the void between work-from-home, Netflix binges, and existential crying bouts, they aren't a good enough replacement for actual, human conversation. People miss talking to other people, especially in person.
This is my theory on why your reading list has been talking non-stop about the re-emergence of conversation pits in the past year. Publications like Architectural Digest, i-D, even Twitter (which i-D mentions, as well); they have all been hinting at conversation pits entering a second wave of popularity in the coming years. To add to it, the 70s as a whole have been coming back into style — flared jeans, platform shoes, wireframe and aviator glasses, The Celebrity Dating Game... it's all coming back like a Vietnam flashback.
But because conversation pits almost too obviously get their fame from hosting conversation, it makes sense for people to yearn for them in their post-pandemic lives. Whether or not they have the guts to have them installed or look for a place that has one is another question.
Are conversation pits a bad idea?
It all depends on who you talk to, right? Countless people are drawn to bringing them back and modernizing them for a new, tech-laden, 21st Century world. And as these examples show, there's plenty of ways to make them seem less tied to macramé, wood-paneled walls, and Pink Floyd vinyls.
But like any trend, its longevity should be questioned. There's a reason they died in the first place. Conversation pits aren't as much of a fad as they are an investment. They quickly become central to the integrity of a home. If one is designed from the beginning or even somehow installed after the fact, it's not going anywhere any time soon. They are, as a whole, cementing.
So to me, it's not a matter of making the home a meeting place for your friends and family for the immediate post-pandemic world. It's a matter of, "will this still be relevant 30 years from now?"
Consider The Shining and Mad Men.
Jack and his family are moving into a very nice, luxurious hotel in The Rockies. At first, the hotel is inviting, rich in what it offers. But something about its emptiness is off-putting and (as only Kubrick can illustrate) psychotic.
Now look at Donald Draper. After years of success in work and failure in a home life, he sits at home. "Home" is a luxurious apartment high in the Manhattan skyline. His apartment was designed for entertaining (aptly featuring a conversation pit), yet he is more and more frequently alone.
In both of these cases, there's a paradigm of being lonely in a situation that would otherwise be lively. There is something off-putting about these situations. Places so often used as centers of entertainment feel like shadows and echoes of their parties when left in isolation.
For me, that is the problem with conversation pits. It's not a knock against their design, popularity, or even their purpose. But these pits really only serve a single purpose — something I seldom believe fits into a home.
There is no such thing as a part-time conversation pit. I can move around chairs and situate furniture when guests are over. Hell, large sectional couches can even be re-purposed and used for more than get-togethers. But with conversation pits, it's much more difficult to break them out of their intended purpose.
But I have money to blow and people to see!
If you have survived the pandemic unscathed and are looking to reintroduce people into your home, there are several ways to do so without limitations that come from conversation pits.
- Invest in good barware — or really, just a good bar in general.
- Rearrange your furniture or even buy new furniture that can be just as accommodating for lazy afternoons alone as they are for entertaining guests at night.
- Find a different central piece to bring everyone together. Maybe a board game for up to eight. Maybe a refined setup for listening to music.
- Go outside! If the pandemic is over for you and your friends, get out of the house you've been stuck in for more than a year. Go hang out at a bar or a restaurant or a park.
- Find a rich friend with no foresight who has a conversation pit. You can live vicariously through them.
Joe Staples is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. When he's not writing, he's breaking in a new pair of Birkenstocks and apartment hunting. Conversation pits are strictly a must not have in his list of amenities.
If you like what he writes, subscribe to his newsletter. Maison Staples comes out every other week(ish)* with a deep dive into art, design, architecture, and more.
*(Sometimes he forgets what every other week looks like and doesn't post anything for three or four weeks)