From Conversation Pits to Open Floor Plans: How Living Rooms Have Changed Over the Past 50+ Years

updated Aug 21, 2020
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It doesn’t matter if you live in a tiny studio apartment or a sprawling, multi-storied space; the living room is arguably the true heart of any home (next to maybe only the kitchen). It’s where you can kick back, relax, and watch some Netflix after a long day. It’s often the place where you put your hosting skills to the test, and more recently, your living room has probably been the spot where you’ve dialed into a virtual happy hour to catch up with friends and family. While it’s played an integral role in the home for what feels like forever, that doesn’t mean it’s always looked the same.

“The living room is the central entertaining space of the home,” explains Alessandra Wood, Modsy’s vice president of style and author of “Designed to Sell,” which traces the history of design retail back to the 1930s. “It’s often the most public space of the home as well, so it’s the area where dwellers usually add the most personality and design attention.”

For those above reasons, Wood thinks the living room has often become a backdrop for showcasing new trends. Interestingly enough, as is often the cyclical nature of fads, certain living room decor items and decorating ideas have come in and out—and back into—vogue over the years. With that in mind, I examined just how living rooms have changed since the ’60s.

Perhaps Kate Butler, head of design for Habitat, a British furniture retailer, says it best: “It’s important to see where we have previously been by looking at elements of design and the ever changing interior industry landscape, whilst also still looking to the future of design.”

Ready to take a walk down memory lane? Looking back on living rooms of the past just might give you some insight into what to expect for the rest of 2020—and beyond.

Credit: Fred Lyon/Getty Images

1960s: Sunken Living Rooms

The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles—let’s face it: The 1960s were a decade that defined pop culture history. Where better to jam out to some classic tunes than a sunken living room? “In the 1960s living rooms were all about bringing people together,” Wood explains. “You can see this in the intimate conversation pits common in modern designs that allowed people to literally descend into a more private sofa setting.”

Though sunken living rooms were all the rage back in the 1960s, they can easily be traced back to more high-profile residential and commercial designs. In 1958, Eero Saarinen and Alexander Girard incorporated one in the Miller House in Indiana. Four years later, Saarinen added the trend to the TWA terminal in New York City’s JFK airport. From there, sunken living rooms went on to appear on a bunch of classic sitcoms including the “Dick van Dyke Show,” as well as as the “Mary Tyler Moore Show”.

Speaking of television, the small screen also got a lot of love back in the ’60s. “The living room set up was geared towards a layout that allowed the family to gather around and watch together,” Wood adds. This factor hasn’t really changed much, unless one consciously chooses to forgo a television set or doesn’t want it to be a focal point of the space for aesthetic reasons. Back in the ’60s though, color television was still new, so the TV itself was more of a showpiece and often even built into focal pieces of furniture. That’s a marked difference from today, where many design savvy people often try to hide their giant black flatscreens.

Credit: Habitat

1970s: Natural Hues

Don’t let the psychedelic pigments of the lava lamp fool you. Living rooms from the 1970s actually favored a more muted, natural color palette. “Stylistically, living room trends in the 1970s embodied earthiness through color, texture, and materials,” says Wood. “During that decade, there was an increased interest in the natural world and in interior design that translated to macramé, natural materials, earthy colors, and shaggy carpets that evoked a grassy knoll.”

Nowadays, people prefer avocado green on their toast—not walls. Back in the day though, consumers wanted everything in this yellow-ish green hue: Cabinets, tile, and of course, living room decor. Rumor has it that most in-the-know designers recommended pairing this trendy hue with brown, mustard, or rust to create a warm, welcoming environment. Polished off with a tactile shag rug? That’s a living room with the ultimate cozy vibes, that is, before hygge was a thing, and fifty shades of gray took over the world of interiors.

Coordinated living room sets were all the rage during the ’70s as well, which can be seen in the Habitat catalog image above from this decade. It wasn’t considered too matchy-matchy at all to have two or more pieces in the exact same fabric. If the above vignette is any indication, the television waned a little bit in its importance as well. This is not to say that televisions disappeared completely from living rooms, but built-in sets were less popular than in the ’50s or the ’60s. This could have had something to do with the increased interest in the outdoors and connecting with nature, which was reflected in the palettes and prevailing home materials of the time.

1980s: Luxe Living Rooms

It’s official: The 1980s was the era of opulence. Don’t believe it? Watch an episode of “Dynasty” or listen to Madonna’s “Material Girl,” both of which were all the rage in the ’80s. With conspicuous consumption at an all-time high, design lovers pulled out all the stops in their living rooms.

“In the 1980s, the trends shifted from earthy naturals to luxurious, modern materials,” Wood says. “We see the use of brass and lacquer, sculptural forms, glass and stone with high shine finishes, and sparkling new materials. Interior design in the ’80s was all about wealth and opulence, pulling inspiration from Art Deco ideology and suggesting one’s success through new, modern design and materials.”

The increased importance of flaunting the latest and greatest technology meant the television’s prominence was back on the rise again. Sets got bigger and bolder and were sometimes affixed to curvy, stylized stands. Speaking of curves, you can’t talk about trends from the ’80s without mentioning the Memphis Design Group. Founded in 1980 by Ettore Sottsass, this Italian movement was all about postmodernism—think bold patterns, rounded edges, and statement-making color combinations. “Designs in the 80s were unashamedly flamboyant in their patterns, while striking primary colors made it one of the most colorful decades,” Butler adds.

Credit: Dan Forer/Getty Images

1990s: Sleek and Spacious

Contrary to what a ’90s childhood bedroom might suggest, design during this decade as a whole exuded a more minimalist charm. “After years of adventurous colors and patterns, minimalist designs started to take prominence in the ’90s,” Butler explains. “Vibrant color palettes began to settle and return to more muted styles. Wood and wicker were popular materials amongst the ’90s home design trends. Orange-stained oak, blonde pine colors, and wicker made their way indoors, bringing natural elements and colors inside.”

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The decade was filled with style icons like Winona Ryder and Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, so it’s no surprise the interior design world would follow suit. In addition to a change in style, the ’90s welcomed in an entirely new living room layout as well.

“By the 1990s, the open concept was in full force with a ‘great room’ as the defining feature of new homes,” Wood shares. “This meant that the living room was really the core of all activities in the house. Then entire family could gather to relax, watch TV, eat, and cook in spaces that flowed seamlessly from one to the next.”

Credit: Lula Poggi

2000s: Modern Marvel

Do you remember how futuristic and mysterious Y2K seemed? Between the iPod, Netflix, and the Blackberry, the early days of the 2000s were the first foray into a truly digital age. Of course, this decade offered some serious advancements in the interior design world, too. “With a new century came new designs,” Butler says. “People began to feature futuristic and modern pieces in their homes. Times were evolving, along with interior trends to match this new era. After the minimalism transition during the 90s, brighter and bolder statements were back on the rise, where people mixed modern products from multiple brands with antiques.”

From shabby chic accents to recliner chairs and fresh-from-the-catalogue furniture, this decade brought the best from the past, present, and future together in one room. It also marked the first time wide-screen television became increasingly widespread. Again, some people were back to putting this piece on display in their living rooms rather than downplaying it.

2010s: Small Space Dwelling

Over the past decade, living room trends have had to adapt to smaller spaces. Not only did the rise in luxurious apartment buildings lead to more people embracing the hustle and bustle of a busy city, but tiny homes also became a world-wide phenomenon, perhaps because of the recession at the end of the 2000s.

“Two key focuses of the 2010s were making the most out of limited space and decluttering any excess possessions, while adding storage furniture to avoid mess within the home,” Butler explains.

As for the design trends? It was all about striking a balance between subtle and and statement. “Modern styles were evolving, and the popularity of having white and nude-colored walls shone a spotlight on the furniture and accessories,” she notes.

Credit: Habitat

2020s: What’s Next?

If the past few months are any indication, living rooms have to do double and triple duty these days. “We’ve seen people shift their needs in how they use their spaces,” Wood says. “Living rooms need to double as daytime workspaces and nighttime family entertainment. We’re seeing people incorporating desks and work spaces into living rooms to accommodate remote jobs or homeschooling.”

Alongside these additions of key pieces of furniture, divider screens and shelving units that separate spaces into zones are becoming popular. Some semblance of division or privacy makes it possible for your living room to work harder and smarter for households with multiple members. Wood also adds that more people are looking for larger, more comfortable sofas. It makes sense: many people have been spending a lot more time on their couches, after all.

Though it might feel like the 2020s will be the longest decade ever, this is only the beginning for it in terms living room design. Truth is, anything is possible. Both Wood and Butler predict we’ll see an increase in environmentally-conscious living rooms designed with Mother Nature in mind. Sounds like a partial return to the ’70s to me, but in reality, only time will tell.

Which trends do you think will be big this decade? Sound off below!