The Sunken Living Room (aka The Conversation Pit)

Sunken living rooms have a significant history that goes back — at least in the contemporary sense — to conversation pit designs by the likes of architect Bruce Goff, who incorporated a sunken seating area into the Adah Robinson residence in 1927. In the late ’50s, architects Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard added one to their famous J. Irwin Miller House in Columbus, Indiana. Saarinen elevated the style with a snappy design in New York's JFK airport in 1962. Hollywood caught on, making a sunken living room the focal point of home life on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the ’60s. The trend had been validated.

Soon homeowners across the world were scrambling to be en vogue with step-down living spaces. (One Houzz user recently unearthed a long-forgotten conversation pit buried in his basement.) The style seemed to peak in the ’70s and soon tapered off. Lately, however, designers and homeowners are bringing sunken living rooms back, if for more practical purposes. The simple and obvious reason is that dropping the floor can create more headroom in spaces where raising the roof isn’t an option. But in a broader sense, the popularity of the throwback design is a response to the mainstream popularity of open floor plans, which, while airy and funtional, create one big continuous space that makes transitioning from one material to another rather difficult. Without partitions, walls or thresholds, how do you switch from a wood floor to poured concrete if there’s no clear delineation between spaces?

The answer is at the bottom of the sunken living room.

Designer Natalie Epstein used a sunken living room in a Santa Monica, California, house when a remodel opened up the kitchen, family and living rooms into one continuous space. Epstein recognized the need for some delineation. “Stepping down gives the sense that this is a different room, that it’s not such a long, vast space,” she says.

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