After years of fencing and separation, the seating pit or ‘conversation pit’ is making an appearance again in our interiors, albeit sometimes only in our dreams. Because if there’s one thing these times need, it’s a good conversation.
The pun is too obvious, but it seems as if the corona crisis has left a lot of people on the ground. Literally then. Where the phenomenon first made a cautious reappearance in specialized publications, ‘interior porn’-accounts on Twitter and Instagram are also posting aspirational images of the architectural intervention this year, much to the delight of their followers. In case you haven’t noticed yet: the seating area is back, and it turns out to be the perfect design classic for this zeitgeist.
The seating area is, as the name suggests, a lowered seating area, the walls of which are usually covered with cushions all around, creating integrated seating. In English, the seat pit is therefore also called the conversation pit mentioned: when you take a seat in it, you almost automatically make eye contact, which also makes it easier for you to have a deep conversation.
It was American architect Bruce Goff who first installed such a lower seating area in a home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the 1920s. The best-known example may have been integrated into the Miller House (1957) in Columbus, Indiana, by architect Eero Saarinen and interior designer Alexander Girard. That sitting pit has five steps down and colorful carpets and cushions that are said to have been switched depending on the occasion and the season. The design, as it would be called today, went viral and several mid century-architects applied the intervention in residential houses or in commercial spaces. For example, there is the well-known red seating area in the otherwise sleek, white TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, also designed by Saarinen.
Not only did a seating area improve the atmosphere at intimate parties, it was also an ingenious way to eliminate furniture pieces and create a more fluid space, according to designer Ward Bennett, who helped spread the conversation pit, he noted in an interview with The New York Times in 1975. De conversation pit however, already started to lose popularity, all the more so because drunk people missed a step and women did not go around the pit dared to walk because men would peek under their skirts. In addition, there was a new must-have for the living room: the television.
Together without a screen
Precisely because today people no longer want to sit and stare at a TV with the whole company, the seating pit is making an appearance again. Not always literally — installing a seating pit is a considerable intervention that not just any home can support, but it is striking how we arrange our living space much less around the television screen. Since the lockdown, there has been a silent longing for a more sincere togetherness, because we now realize how much we value the people around us.
Also in The New York Times American interior designer Rock Herzog, who runs the popular Twitter account @cocainedecor, describes the conversation pit as the perfect metaphor for our times. “Not only are we (or have been) physically separated from each other, we are also currently culturally, socially and politically separated, and the end is not in sight. The conversation pit fulfills the wish: what would it be like if we were together again and had fun?”
These three residents recently renovated their seating pit, or built a new one from scratch.
Katrien Van Goethem (33) divided her loft on the basis of differences in level: ‘The design has determined the entire concept of my loft’
“My loft is located in the old warehouse of the Roode Pelikaan coffee roaster in Antwerp. I actually bought an empty space with four columns, which I could then build into a loft myself. Many plans have preceded this. I’m an architect, so I tackled that myself. For me, rest was the most important aspect; I wanted to come home from the bustling Antwerp city center to a place where there are few incentives. My seat does contribute to that. Because it is recessed, you can’t see directly through the windows and you really feel like you’re in a cocoon away from the world. I can’t sit still very well, but when I was visiting my niece in New York I discovered that once you have a good floppy seat, you don’t want to get out. So I wanted that myself, such a flop chair, so that I would occasionally sit down for an evening. (laughs) However, I didn’t find anything that met my requirements and so I started designing myself. After all, I had already drawn my own bed, kitchen island and all the cupboards myself.
“A seating pit is not suitable for every home, especially not for apartments, because it is quite a drastic construction and you also lose height. With my ceilings of more than four meters I could spare half a meter, I had to raise my floor anyway, because I wanted to change the entire layout of the building and therefore had to run pipes from one side to the other. But I am very happy with the result. Not only because I finally have my seat into which I can really sink, but also because the design has determined the whole concept of my loft. Once I had decided to go for a seating area, I also demarcated the rest of the rooms on the basis of differences in level — so my bedroom is also a bit higher. The cropping and box-in-box principle of volumes reminds me of it North East South Westproject by artist Michael Heizer, a work that I have always found very clever, and which I now kind of feel at home in.”
Tom Schaek (41) and Kaat Maes (42) gave the sitting pit in their sixties home rehabilitation: ‘It is an intimate setting, but wild dance parties are also held here and camps are built’
Tom: “We didn’t actually plan to move, but when my wife came across this old doctor’s house on Immoweb, we knew this was a project for us. The house dates from 1964, but was renovated in the 1970s by the modernist architect Lou Jansen, a well-known name from the Turnhout school, who added a seating pit to his design. However, the owners from whom we bought the house did not do much with it. The whole was stripped, painted a silver color and fitted with glass walls, as a playground for the children. You often have that with old architectural gems: you have to be able to see through the current interior. When we stepped in here four years ago, we were immediately drawn to the modernist details that shone through, such as the difference in level of the seating pit and the typical staircase. We wanted to restore the original details, but with a fresh touch. So we approached architect Dries Otten, who immediately went for carpet in a striking yellow colour.
“We often sit here to look at our garden and listen to music. I understand why the lockdown has given the seating pit a boost. This is a really intimate setting — you’re looking at each other, rather than staring at a screen, so you’re more likely to engage in conversation. The conversation pit did not steal his name. But wild dance parties are also held here and camps are built by the children. It really is a part of our home, not just an architectural fact.”
William Hakelbracht (35) and Liene Meneve (33) brought life to the organ hall of an old canon’s residence: ‘This place equals quality time, aperitifs’
William: “There was originally an organ on the site of our seating area. Our house in Herent is built like a chapel, built by Paul Meekels in 1975. This place, at the central point on the top floor, was the music hall, according to the plans. The floor was raised and two supporting beams ran through it to provide extra reinforcement, because such an organ weighs a lot. When that organ was removed, it turned out that those pout riots automatically resulted in a half step. By raising the floor around it to the same extent, we automatically arrived at a good seat height.
“Although I am a furniture maker myself (@woti_be, ed.), it was a challenge, especially to find the right interpretation. That form eventually came about organically. We have thought very carefully about how we, and the people we like to welcome, sit in the sofa. For our parents, for example, there’s a section with a shorter seat and a firm back that they can sit in a bit more formally, while there’s also a section that you can stretch out in for when we’re reading a book here. That is how that unique dynamic has crept in.
“The children also like to sit here, they often play with their cars in the bends. The pond, they called it. We also have another sitting area, where we watch TV for example, but this place equates to quality time, to aperitifs. The soft materials immediately make it feel very homely and cosy. I’m glad the seating area is gaining popularity again, especially as it gives your home character and direction. In recent years you have seen a trend in the interior world where people built and decorated in a very general way — as if the house had to be immediately resaleable. While I do think it is important that a house reflects who its residents are.”