Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The pits

As in conversation pits, that is: architectural elements that first appeared in the 1960s. A conversation pit is a sunken area of floor, frequently in front of or surrounding a fireplace where people got together to talk. Sometimes it is hard to understand the enthusiasms of a previous generation but the conversation pit is beginning to look very attractive again, at least to me. However, conversation pits are of their time and it'll be the brave architectural student who suggests resurrecting them. They really are one of the curiosities of 1960s interior design.

Other than the date on a magazine cover and some poor quality printing, what makes a decorating scheme seem of its time? I mentioned the delving of conversation pits (this house was built in 1961), thickets of tropical plants indicate the 1970s, as does feverishly strong color. Texture plaguing every surface especially of textiles was common during that decade, as was an elephantine swelling of upholstery forms. The migration of mirror from frame to wall to ceiling was a 1970s phenomenon - as ceilings became increasingly an area for elaboration. The integration of technology and lighting into architectural and decorative schemes was a developing and clearly exciting area for designers - in fact, a new profession, that of lighting designer, began during these years.

Drama as a decorative quality was seemingly much sought after by the designers of the 1970s, and that some residential interiors share that quality with hotels of the period can be no accident.

Admittedly this is an 18,000 square foot house, with at least six separate areas for entertaining, but look at the two photos below. Described as a library, this space with its own conversation pit facing the television and wine collection, under-lighted furniture and up-lighted planting could equally be perceived as part of an large hotel lobby, hushed and softly glowing.

The bedroom with its own foyer, dressing area, bath lounge with ocean view, sunken whirlpool bath, and console from which everything electrical - draperies, television, music, even the outdoor jacuzzi - could be controlled.

The short description of the decorator, Stephen Chase, gives a peek at the fashions of the time:

"Richly tanned and wearing a quasi military outfit with green and scarlet epaulets. Mr Chase appears more like a young Field Marshal Alexander of Tunis than an interior designer. His tan, it must be noted, is not from Palm Springs or Los Angeles but from the tropical sun of Hawaii."

Photos by Fritz Taggart from Architectural Digest, July/August 1974.


  1. I don't think the pits quite do it for me; they're a bit of a trap if you're in one with company you'd rather extract yourself from surreptitiously. However, the mirrored ceiling is potentially an interesting idea where ceiling heights are not high enough. I had a similar idea when I renovated my apartment, but rather than using mirror, I thought of white shiny perspex. It would have worked, (in metre blocks), if the contractor done it before and really had some idea of how to affix it. But actually now that I think of it again, (six years later), I think I might revisit both ideas. The only effect I want is to get a reflection, which could also be achieved by glossy paint.

  2. The lighting underneath the bench is really too much! I think lighting consultants can make a positive contribution to a project, but too often they seem to be more interested in just producing an effect to add to their portfolio. It would be interesting to see the state of this house today, if it is now shabby in the light of day, or if it has all been cleared out. But thanks, it was enjoyable to see!

  3. A marvellous exposition of the 70s aesthetic, thank you! I always wanted to lounge in a conversation pit but was never invited. I think split levels of any species are exciting.

  4. I have always been intrigued by conversation pits and believe that perhaps I would have liked them, though I do remember seeing a contemporary photo of the period showing a man occupying a pit wearing a mustache and a kaftan which seems disturbingly scary for some reason. I also agree that while you might well been able to have had an undisturbed intense, but satisfying conversation, you might also have been trapped talking to someone about their love affair with string, or worse SPORT!


    Heck, thank you so much for your blog and all of the wonderful pictures and information that you have brought forward through it. Every once in a while, I have this overwhelming desire to Google Search Images of Retro, 1960's, 1970's and Futuristic Designs, because they bring me this feeling, this amazing feeling that I remember from when I was alive in the 1970's - all three years and two months of them, and what lingered into the 1980's for a while.

    Truly, some of the best architecture came out of that era for sure.

    AND, the Conversation Pits - PURE CREATIVE GENIUS.....

    They were created for the generation that actually had both the intelligence along with the passion needed at the same time to stand up in society, against the injustice that was around back then, like Racial Segregation and The War In Viet Name. That generation were known for Woodstock, Hippies, Groovy Music, and Making Love Instead Of War, which eventually gave way to shows in the 70's like "Three's Company" which when I hear the Theme Song, also takes me back to what seemed like simpler times and better days, on Earth.

  6. I was just looking back at some old Steve Chase interiors - it seems he had his practice in Palm Springs and was a former protégé of Arthur Elrod. Elrod, in turn, lived in the famous John Lautner house bearing his name which appeared in the 1971 James Bond movie, Diamonds Are Forever. Lautner is my favorite architect, and I've loved the Bond aesthetic since I was a kid. But Elrod's old house is a sixties time capsule in Palm Springs, recently on the market and also worth perusing - see photos:

    To any readers who don't know Lautner's work, I suggest Googling, especially Sheats-Goldstein house and the house he did in Acapulco.

    But as with all these period interiors, the fascinating thing is to try to sort out what has endured and what hasn't - and why. I suspect that answer may vary greatly based on the prevailing tastes of the moment, yet there is no denying a sense of balance, scale, texture, and color coordination (I was thinking this after looking at Elrod's old pre-Lautner time capsule sixties residence).