From the unvarying fifties’ sleek aesthetic transitioning into the mid-sixties’ cultural revolution and psychedelic excess arriving at the eccentric seventies’ wild parties ⎯ this piercing period of political, economic and social change embraced the novelty of the conversation pit, a piece of furniture for an emerging form of interaction. 

Though often regarded as tasteless, lately it has become an attractive design for human connection in an increasingly detached society. Its unexpected resurrection redefines the once classified kitsch design into a recurring cultural symbol, a living room typology.  

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The 1960s_©cnn.com

The 1950s

1. Ford House

Date: 1949
Architect: Bruce Goff
Location: Illinois, US

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Ford House_©architecturaldigest.com

The central volume, an ambitious ribbed dome, is fragmented into three distinctive circular plan levels emerging from a central core, the fire. The deep-set living space becomes more than a conversation pit but a rotating nook for the house’s common social areas. 

Surrounded by an upper peripheric gallery and covered by a suspended balcony in the top level, it is evidence of the circle as “an informal, gathering-around, friendly form.” 1

2. Terrace Theatre

Date: 1951
Architect: Liebenberg and Kaplan
Location: Minnesota, US

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Terrace Theatre_©dwell.com

Liebenberg and Kaplan were known for their movie theatre designs. The Terrace Theatre was one of the most dramatic and luxurious built in the Twin Cities. It echoed the movie palaces of the twenties yet without leaving behind the fifties’ spirit. 

The most exciting feature was the rustic sunken lounge revolving around a massive cooper fireplace while confronted with outside terrace views. 

3. Bavinger House 

Date: 1955
Architect: Bruce Goff
Location: Oklahoma, US

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Bavinger House_©hiddenarchitecture.net

It grows into a whimsical forest, footed to the ground by a continuous stone wall and covered by a spiralling roof. The interior spaces mimic levitating conversation pits that radiate from the central axis and hang off the ceiling. 

They become multi-level platforms for intimate interaction or individual meditation, suspended above the ground floor’s fabricated natural environment. 

4. Garvey House

Date: 1955
Architect: Bruce Goff
Location: Illinois, US

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Garvey House_©dwell.com

Two musicians, John Garvey and his wife wanted a house for flexible entertainment. The heart of the circular plan house is a conversation pit dipped four steps into the floor beneath a central skylight. 

Destined to function as a performance space – with a seating area and a stage – it virtually amplifies towards the outside or becomes a reserved space for practice, enclosed by the house’s perimetral private zone. 

5. Cohen House

Date: 1955
Architect: Paul Rudolph
Location: Florida, US 

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Cohen House_©dwell.com

David Cohen and his wife Eleene – known as a musical couple in the community – wanted an ample and straightforward design for their new house, especially a large multipurpose space for performances. 

An open-plan house accomplished the purpose, primarily composed by a part sunken living area. A step downwards surrounded by cushions on the floor became the standard for the functional and silent space. 

6. Miller House

Date: 1957
Architect: Eero Saarinen
Location: Indiana, US

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Miller House_©vitra.com

The one-storey house reminiscent of Mies van der Rohe’s architecture and enriched by Alexander Girard’s intimate interiors became an ideal space for the Miller’s epic parties and private conclaves, as well as a quiet home for their family. 

The outright focus of the house is the unexpected conversation pit in the open living room. It adds a whole new dimension of interaction and spatial experience without hoarding the continuous space with furniture. In effect, one could see through a straight line – across the pit – the outside’s beautifully crafted landscape.

7. Klein House

Date: 1957
Architect: Peter Womersley
Location: Scottish Borders, Scotland, UK

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Klein House_©modernhouse.com

The scene of fashion shows, parties and creative revelation. A house commissioned by textile designer Bernat Klein. A simple rectangular volume arranged on a grid that enables a play between solids and voids within a single structural frame. 

Indeed, the living room is the most astonishing part of the house: “The sunken central seating area contains travertine floors, original bespoke furnishings and storage, exotic obeche wood ceiling panels, floor-to-ceiling windows, and panelled walls made up of idigbo, rosewood, and walnut. Study, library, and dining areas surround the space, which are divided by changes in elevation and plantings.” 2 

Here, the conversation pit transforms into an unlimited space of possibilities, enriched by the use of a broad range of materials and their expressive quality.  

8. Edersheim Residence

Date; 1959
Architect: Paul Rudolph
Location: New York, US 

 

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Edersheim Residence _©pinterest.com

An iconoclastic design for the time presents itself as a carefully modulated space of pouring creative design. For instance, the oval library embraces something like the bodily experience of art: an enveloping room with contrasting orange surfaces and neutral carpet floor, bookshelves as walls, reflective ceiling, a single window, and an immersed conversation pit. Ironically, adding up to an intimate and functional room. 

The 1960s

9. TWA Flight Center

Date: 1962
Architect: Eero Saarinen
Location: New York, US

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TWA Flight Center conversation pit_©wsj.com

For Saarinen, it was an abstraction of the idea of flight itself. The building’s dynamic form and fluid interior rapidly became a symbol of air travel’s golden age and its luxurious cocktail lounges. A circular clock pendant marks the meeting point of symmetrically arranged massive concrete shells that cover the interior. 

The sight of this central position leads the ascension through imposing stairs to find at the top the vivid red lined conversation pit, a striking sunken waiting area with panoramic views of the airport’s operations through a massive window. 

10. Milam Residence

Date: 1962
Architect: Paul Rudolph, 1962
Location: Florida, US

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Milam Residence_© themodernhouse.com

Arthur W. Milam’s residence abandons any notion of structural order and apprehends the act of composition through a spatial organisation, resulting in an ensemble of functional areas with contrasting character. 

The floor plan spreads around a longitudinal two-storey living room that latently frames the space and lowers two steps into a transformed scene of tête-à-tête. 

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Manuela Tafur
Author

Manuela is an architect from Bogotá, Colombia. She has a special interest in architectural theory believing architecture results from the human understanding of the world and its place in the universe. In films, books, and finding unique spaces in cities, she recognizes society's memory and essence.

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