From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Lazy Susan was broadcast on 1st January 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
Whoever Susan was, I’m sure she didn’t appreciate being called lazy. Especially when the device named the Lazy Susan does such a fine job of ensuring everyone gets a decent stab at the dishes on offer.
The Lazy Susan is such a fixture of Chinese restaurants that it would appear to be a Chinese invention and yet its genesis is rather hazy. Some say that it was Thomas Jefferson who named it after a dippy daughter. There’s no evidence for that but Jefferson, who designed his own splendid house, Monticello, in the late 1700s, was certainly a fan of things that revolved. His home, now a museum, displays his adaptations of ordinary furniture, placing a traditional Windsor chair on a pivot so that it swivelled, and a revolving table and a revolving book stand so that he could work at either without having to clear anything away. That revolving table echoes one used in thirteenth century China to set out blocks of characters to be used in printing. The revolving bookcase became a popular feature of sitting rooms in the Victorian era, with four sides of shelving in one compact piece which could be spun to reveal the book of your choice. Of course the revolving bookcase has long been a cliché in adventure films, revealing secret tunnels if you knew precisely which book to press. There are no secrets with the Lazy Susan, though. That’s its point – to hide nothing and put everything within reach.
Their popularity in Chinese restaurants goes back to 1950s Chinatown in San Francisco when restaurant owner Johnny Kan installed them on his tables with a design using ball bearings created by an engineer friend. There was a precedent in an idea written about by a Malaysian doctor, Dr Wu Lien-Teh, who designed a ‘hygienic dining tray’ in 1917, after seeing people eating directly from a communal dish using their chopsticks, potentially spreading contagion. A spinning tray would have each diner spooning food into his own bowl before digging in but there’s no record of it ever being produced. There was also the Self-Waiting Table, designed by an inventor in Missouri, Elizabeth Howell, to make up for the lack of a waiter, with a revolving platter set on castors in the middle of the table, also never making production.
It seems, therefore, that the Lazy Susan’s fame indeed spread from that first use in Chinatown restaurants in America. They may be ubiquitous in mainland China now but they were first seen on the restaurant tables of the most Westernised cities in China in the twentieth century.
Whoever she is, once Lazy Susan spins into action she is, indeed, a busy and most helpful dining assistant, giving everyone at the table a fair chance to fill their plates. Democratic and always on hand, she is undeniably the lazy diner’s best friend.