Alice Laycock

In the halcyon childhood days of many people, there are a few hazy recollections involving the creating of hideaways out of sheets, falling onto beanbags, charging around soft play areas, and removing the sofa cushions to create padded blanket dens on the floor. These balmy memories all have one thing in common; the pure and unadulterated desire to create environments of safety, seclusion, and closeness. 

In centuries gone by, these childhood longings did not dilute into adulthood as they do today. People of all ages lived and slept communally in caves, and desert dwelling tribes would assemble upon rugs and cushions under fabric canopies to eat, talk, and sleep- raw examples of the concept of safety in numbers. People naturally congregated with the shared interest in avoiding the cold or excessive heat. In the gloomy depths of the Tudor built farm and manor houses of the British Isles, one can often find an Inglenook fireplace; an intimate space inside a recessed niche or alcove, featuring seating either side of the hearth. In the traditionally designed houses of Greece (especially in Cycladic coastal dwellings), thick white stone walls concealed wooden, curtained off platforms hosting upholstered banquettes scattered with thin sheets and blankets, designed to host collective siestas away from the searing midday sun. 

So what happens when modern society uses the respectable guise of design to surrender to the basic human desire for communal togetherness? The answer lies (comfortably) in the conversation pit. A bygone element of interior design from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, it is defined as “an architectural feature that incorporates built-in seating into a depressed section of flooring within a larger room.”. Popularised by Tulip Chair designer Eero Saarinen by its use in the seminal Miller House (1958), it became an architectural favourite in North America and Europe. However, when the playful decades of free love, flower power, and excess dwindled, so did the popularity of the conversation pit. Its influence remained, though; the concept gave rise to the more socially acceptable ‘sunken living room’, which, while still nestled into a depression in the floor, does not feature a padded base. This new iteration is now becoming popular in the design of contemporary offices and is on the rise in the domestic environment again too (albeit mostly in a landscaping capacity).  

It feels as though it took a global pandemic and subsequent lockdown for our usually ‘stiff-upper-lip’ society to uninhibitedly yearn for the togetherness that the conversation pit facilitated in the previous century. While contemporary technology allowed us to be in touch with our loved ones remotely, nothing compares to seeing those you love and value face to face. 

During lockdown, as early as on the first or second day, my housemate and I made the almost unspoken unanimous decision to create what we would refer to from that day onwards as ‘the nest’. Born of our three sofas pulled together to create an enclosed, cushioned hideaway, it provided us with a space to work, relax, and talk to each other and our families for those long few months. It was a relief to climb into it when the news became more dire by the day, and we began to feel more and more vulnerable. Despite both being in our late teens/early twenties, we eventually felt no embarrassment when we told our friends and families “yeah, we’re just sat in the nest for the afternoon”. 

To keep my skill in photoshop and CAD software honed during this enforced 6-month summer holiday, I decided to create a conversation pit in ArchiCAD. The interior is exceedingly simple; a cavernous room with a padded, square conversation pit, adorned with additional loose pillows, watched over by a suspended orb fireplace from the BATHYSCAFOCUS collection by Focus Fireplaces. The orb and flue are centred between two large rounded archway windows, bringing the mid-century modern together with the traditionalism of Greco-Roman forms, exaggerated in size for Baroque drama and impact. Above, a mid-century Sputnik chandelier hovers, tieing the space together by just tipping the balance between the classical and the ‘space age’. The abundance of mid-century motifs present is due not only to the decades where the conversation pit was at the height of its popularity, but also in accordance with the stylistic focus of a collaborative project that myself and my housemate were working on at the time. 

For many, the lockdown brought up feelings of nostalgia and reminiscence. I found myself revisiting a lot of artwork which I studied in A-Level Art History, thus deciding to place four landscape paintings as views from the windows in place of photographed vistas. These include, in the renders, Virgin and Child in a Landscape (Govaerts, c.1600), and River Landscape with an Antique Temple (Boucher, 1762), and in the sections, Constable’s Seascape Study with Rain Cloud (1827) and Matisse’s Seascape (1905). These paintings range vastly in style and mood; from the placidity and regality of the Baroque/Mannerist and Rococo styles of the Govaerts and Boucher (respectively), to the experimental and expressive feel of the Romantic and Fauvist paintings by Constable and Matisse (respectively). I feel as though these paintings illustrate the ups and downs of the mental state over lockdown, from relaxation and freedom, to entrapment and confusion. 

My lockdown comfort purchases mainly included houseplants, which helped give me a sense of purpose; hence the presence of a large Monstera Deliciosa, Euphorbia, and Aloe Vera plant. 

In previous projects, my visualisations have been populated by stock image figures, edited into opaque silhouettes, which serve to illustrate the scale of the space and provide insight into its use. For the conversation pit, I invited my friends to send me images of themselves in reclined, seated, and upright poses to populate the renders instead. The taking of these images gave them something different and humorous to do on those long, repetitive days, and gave me the chance to subtly credit them here for their support and friendship in this trying time (you know who you are).  

Words: Alice Laycock, Storehouse Content Team, @laycockinteriors

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