An ode to the conversation pit
Nov 17, 2023
an-ode-to essay

The conversation pit is a hallmark of 1950s mid-century modern interior design. Brought on by a desire for a simpler, cleaner, and more spacious living room, it aims to sidestep the clutter of furniture entirely, simply by moving the living room’s most imposing unit onto a plane below that of the other pieces. It’s a centerpiece not by the way it imposes itself on the room, but by the way it aims to transcend it.

Or that’s what designers in the 1950s thought. In reality, the conversation pit was a rather clunky and sometimes dangerous part of mid-century living rooms, concisely outlined by a TIME article published in 1963; drunk party-goers would meet their demise on the unforgiving sunken floor, those lounging would get a front-row seat to a sea of ankles, and women would shy away from the pit’s edge in fear of any inconspicuous wandering eyes. As tastes in style changed and the living room adapted itself as the prime television-watching area, conversation pits soon started to get filled in, collapsing the living room onto a single plane once again.

However, like many other mid-century designs, conversation pits have experienced a resurgence as a trendy and unorthodox living room layout. This trend emerged from a desire to take the living room back from the iron grip of technology, and instead make it serve as a “nucleation site” for deep conversation to blossom. Those who advocate for its return praise the conversation pit for putting human interaction at the forefront instead of pushing it off to the side in lieu of a fancy-schmancy TV and sound system. They encapsulate a time where the joys of connecting with your friends and loved ones through conversation were abundant.

But do they really? A quick Google search of “conversation pit” yields hundreds upon hundreds of photos of sleek, modern conversation pits, but a vast majority of these results lack one important element: the people. Instead of fostering community, they instead stand motionless as a sort of virtue signal, showing guests that its owner is above the idea of staring at a big screen for entertainment. Its primary purpose is to be stared at, not to be used.

And even then, conversation pits are still less achievable than ever before. With the rising costs of homeownership, more and more people are forced to rent smaller spaces, spaces that are hopelessly unequipped for the kind of transformation that a conversation pit requires. And thus, those who can’t afford it are left to ogle over sterile social media posts, fantasizing about having one in their own homes. The only ones who can afford it are those who already have an abundance of conversation-focused living spaces. The problem isn’t that everyone is too overworked to have the energy to talk to each other, or that predatory advertising and short-form media has hijacked our dopamine receptors, no! It’s because we can’t afford to stick a cushioned pit in our 100-square foot living room.

Well, how do we actually create an environment that sparks conversation, just like the conversation pit aims to do? The answer is a bit more complicated. Many try hard to cultivate a place ripe for conversation, delicately curating comfortable seating, inspiring centerpieces, and “effortless” style. However, conversations actually happen in places that seem otherwise unfit for them. Some of my best talks have occurred when sitting on a hard granite countertop, standing cross-legged in a dorm hallway, or curled up on a set of uncomfortable wooden stairs. There is a disconnect between the places we think would be good for conversation and the places that actually are.

However, there is a common link between all of these settings: everyone came to them naturally, not prescriptively. Everyone just happened to have lunch, head downstairs for a morning coffee, or trudge through the hallway en route to the shared bathrooms, all at the same time. Small talk began, and that talk erupted into a deep conversation. Sure, a comfortable living room might be good to move to after the conversation gets started, but rarely does the conversation start in the room itself. Members of the same shared spaces have different priorities of what makes a shared space special, so there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all solution for sparking conversation. So the key to getting conversation started is to not try to cultivate a space for conversation and conversation alone. Instead, spend time making your other shared spaces pleasant to be in, so those living with you are encouraged to spend as much time in those places as possible.

While the idea of a conversation pit lives on, its actual use is mostly a relic of the past. It serves as a reminder that genuine, raw human interaction is lot more complicated than initially thought. We can’t just slap an appealing couch in the middle of our room and expect interaction to materialize out of thin air. Our schedules are too busy, or our social circles are too disjointed and decentralized, or our phone’s siren call is too alluring to push us out the door. What actually makes conversation happen is not trying to cultivate a “conversation” place, but instead incentivizing shared living in general. However, this all rests on the assumption that you have people around to be in those places in the first placeā€”and I can’t really help you with that.

The conversation pit: 210.

The idea of a conversation pit: 810.