The Groovy Return of Conversation Pits

A midcentury design staple, sunken living rooms are making a comeback. Here’s what to know about these recessed rooms.

A sunken living room is a recessed portion of a room or an entire area that’s recessed in comparison to the adjacent floor plan. It might be lower by just a few inches or by a few feet, sometimes using stairs to transition between the two levels. Also called conversation pits, these sunken spaces are designed as intimate gathering areas inside open-concept floor plans. “It's a way to create some definition within a larger space, to be more intimate without putting up walls around it,” says Justin Racinowski, principal at Racinowski Design Studio.

Sunken living rooms gained fame through television throughout the '60s and '70s, with appearances on the Dick Van Dyke Show and Mary Tyler Moore Show. But the design element dates back much further.

sunken living room

Racinowski Design Studio

It’s generally recognized that Bruce Goff designed the first modern sunken living room in 1927. Architects like Eero Saarinen picked up the “lounge pit” design in the 1950s. Soon it was a common feature, particularly in the popular ranch-style homes that benefited most from the definition of a cozy gathering space within a large open concept. Initial popularity tapered in the 1970s, but the design element is once again gaining interest. 

modern conversation pit

Bongkarn Thanyakij / Getty Images

Today's Sunken Living Rooms

Midcentury modern seemed to be everywhere in the 2010s, including a prominent feature in another influential television show, Mad Men, and the style has remained popular since. Likewise, 1970s decor is back with a modern twist, so it’s no surprise that conversation pits continue to catch attention. “It's part of the overall contemporary design movement that has roots in midcentury modern design,” says Racinowski.

Another factor supporting a renewed interest in sunken living rooms is current furniture styles. The midcentury furniture revival feels right at home in a sunken living room. Similarly, low-slung sofas with slim, contemporary profiles can create the built-in look that was common for these spaces. Plus, today’s craze for overstuffed, sink-in chairs and sofas, and furniture arrangements like sectional sofa pits, rekindle the lounge vibes of a conversation pit.

Conversation Pits in Historic Homes

While sunken living rooms certainly have appeal, professionals aren’t expecting a huge resurgence in new home design. “I have not seen too many new homes with sunken areas; it’s primarily older homes,” says Shanyelle Young, broker, realtor, and owner of S. Young Realty & Associates. “However, the newer ones that I have seen look great, because the ceilings look so much higher, and you can play around with new lighting and modern furniture.” 

When it comes to older homes, though, sunken living rooms are staying in place. “I renovate a lot of midcentury homes, so more often it is retaining the existing integrity of the spaces and enhancing them, or making them more functional,” says Racinowski.

So can you add a sunken living room to an existing home? Possibly, but it's not easy. "It's hard to do with an existing home if one doesn’t already exist because it involves restructuring the floor to lower it,” says Racinowski. Adding a sunken living room could require altering the foundation, which is not an easy task to undertake. 

A home addition is an ideal opportunity to incorporate a sunken space. While you might be able to accommodate a cozy conversation pit in the center of a new space, it’s more likely for the entire addition to be recessed in comparison to the existing main level of the house. “Lowering the addition’s floor, in line with the exterior grade, provides a more seamless transition to the outdoor spaces and better connection to nature–another hallmark of midcentury design,” says Racinowski. 

Things to Consider When Designing a Conversation Pit

Pros of a Sunken Living Room

Sunken living rooms certainly have benefits. “I love to point out a sunken room or living space to buyers. It's such a unique feature, especially in our part of the country, and it gives a multi-dimensional perspective and feel to the room,” says Young.

Conversation pits offer more character than boxy walls and the traditional, flat topography of a level floor plan. Lowered floors help a space feel more open and the ceilings seem higher. It's a great place to add a stand-out light fixture to really draw attention to the ceiling and sense of height. At the same time, big, often-bulky furniture lowered into the room visually minimizes its presence to contribute to the airy feel. 

Cons of a Sunken Living Room

However, there are some challenges to consider when it comes to sunken living rooms. For example, furniture in sunken living rooms and conversation pits is often custom-built to fit the space and tucked along the perimeter to enhance the definition and increase the closed-off intimacy. Custom bench or sofa seating is one example; wooden bookshelves or storage is another. This can be a significant cost, but it’s not required. In addition, these spaces aren't terribly flexible. If your needs change, the size or location might no longer match your lifestyle; it’s not as simple as rearranging furniture and decor to redesign an open layout

The biggest concerns with conversation pits and sunken living rooms are safety and accessibility. The recess is a tripping hazard. “Many buyers actually have a misstep when touring homes as they are not used to stepping down a step or two,” says Young. A sunken living room in the middle of a larger space is especially unexpected. A recessed space in the midst of a high-traffic area can increase the likelihood of tripping, too.

Ideally, a feature like a sunken living room would be located outside busy traffic flow. Using different flooring materials or colors to distinguish between levels can help make a recessed area more obvious. Similarly, railings are both a smart safety measure and a necessary modern addition to sunken living rooms, depending on building code requirements. 

Finally, even a slight step down can limit accessibility, preventing some people with mobility aids from entering the space. While this might exclude people from one small portion of a room in some homes, it could inhibit access to entire parts of the floor plan in other homes. Conversation pits are not a universal-design friendly feature. 

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