Many consider the 1970s a lost era of interior design, its avocado-green and harvest-gold linoleum reminiscent of its wild-party hangovers, its spider-plants kitchens reminding me somehow of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, its modern conveniences, like indoor grills and deep-friers, not-so-convenient.
Before we remodeled, my current house (built in 1978) looked like the ‘90s and ‘70s had traveled through a teleporting machine together and emerged a hybrid monster. But I loved its structure—that it doesn’t have one interior wall stretching from basement to second floor, that its off-centered, two-storied stucco chimney can be seen from the stair balcony, that its copious and dark-stained trim and doors sent other potential buyers packing.
Since purchasing it five years ago, I have embraced what I love about its ‘70s design, keeping the gold-finished doorhandles and dark wood, installing a geometric cement backsplash and colored cabinets, tearing down the valences to showcase the huge windows. The one trend I didn’t employ (though we do have the perfect space for one) is the infamous conversation pit, a built-in, sunken seating square created with all-night dinner parties in mind.
(View of my family room from real estate photos before purchasing—see that rust-colored carpet square? It’s built into the wood floor over a crawl space—perfect for a conversation pit.)
Conversation pits, created in the ‘50s and hitting their peak in the late ‘70s, often forced people to sit more closely than they might in a regular sitting area, its permanent structure not allowing furniture to be scooted back or chairs to be added, a situation that might land someone in another’s lap. They remind me of dry hot tubs without the concealing bubbles, or fire pits without the smoke and biting air. I can see my three toddlers, running laps around the house, having fallen into one, toppling like dominos and disappearing into the floor, becoming trapped within its playpen walls (ooh, new use for it, maybe?).
A few DC bars in the ‘90s adopted the trend with sunken bars, the pit full of bartenders forced to look up all night. I remember ordering drinks being awkward. You had to bend over, revealing whatever cleavage you had. If you wanted to sit and chat, you had to practically squat on the floor, whatever skirt you might be wearing bunching like a belt at your waist. Maybe that was the point. You couldn’t crowd the bar, and if you did, you flashed everyone at it.
You can see why bar pits disappeared, hopefully for good.
But, what about home pits?
In a 2011 Apartment Therapy article, Catrin Morris suggested some ‘70s design would make a come-back in the new century because the ‘70s were similarly “burdened by recession, corruption, and high unemployment rates; a time of renewed environmentalism and disenchantment with material excess.” Individualism and embellishment were favored, along with a love for all things earth-toned: (dark, wickered, and paneled) wood, (macramé) wool, (spider) plants and (terracotta) clay.
Some of ‘70s design did return and flourish, like portrait walls, more colorful kitchens, wallpaper, and especially the open-concept floor plan, with lofted ceilings and open staircases. The original purpose of these open spaces and varying eye levels was to invite people’s gazes into spaces they weren’t invited before: children and husbands into the kitchen around islands, women into offices and studies, and guests into loungie, comfortable living spaces rather than stuffy living rooms. But our millennial selves seemed to like these off-center, more egalitarian perspectives, too.
Then, the pandemic happened. We were forced to socialize only with family, all the time, for years, without privacy. Wood became too expensive to coat the walls in. We bought nonclimbing Roombas to help with the constant cleaning. People wanted closed-off rooms for conducting calls and attending classes. Families installed walls to create home offices. Children moved their bedrooms into the basement to get away from their siblings. We no longer wanted to sit so closely, or together. We no longer wanted voices ringing through the vaulted ceilings, once created to let light in.
Of course, whenever I am forced to sit around my house, I begin thinking about improving its design, and this holiday week, I started pining for more interesting party spaces. But, in the age of Covid, conversation pits feel like viral petri dishes, the requisite six-feet-between-people and open-air circulation for socializing nonexistent in their enclosed walls. Perhaps this is why I suddenly want one—why I can’t stop thinking about them; they feel like relics of a pre-pandemic age in which friends visited for dinner and stayed too long, played board games and rolled on the floor in laughter, the pit like a protective shell from the worries of the world. Zoom-pits don’t quite offer the same intimacy.
Maybe I should just chalk up my newfound interest in this recent surge of Covid, landing right during the holidays…again…spoiling our plans to get together with friends, the ones we haven’t seen in ages. Wanting to install a conversation pit is escapist fantasy. A way to lament how close we became to sitting on top of one another, in a circular hole, breathing into one another’s faces. What a luxury, right?
But I do wonder whether the home conversation pit will someday gloriously return. Or if such wanton togetherness has died like the futon or Hollywood mirror lights have. I hope not. I still believe someday we will climb down and into holes and sit on our random-friend-who-recently-traveled-abroad’s lap, drink champagne, and laugh at how we might possibly vacuum the odd space in the morning.
A girl dream, can’t she?
I hope you were able to safely see loved ones over these holidays. May the New Year bring new health to you and yours!