I was first introduced to the Lazy Susan while on a trip to Manila with my mom to see her extended family in the Philippines. I still remember the food – the smell of pit-roasted pig and fried rice filling my senses at a gallop. On our first night there, I sat at the round dining table next to my grandfather, who nudged the heavily loaded tabletop and made the feast before us spin, as if by magic. The entire spread was, in fact, sitting on a gigantic swiveling disc. The slightest touch caused the dishes to whizz around in the culinary version of a wheel of fortune. I gorged on everything.
While the so-called Lazy Susan is now synonymous with the mid-century American home, the device itself dates back to the 18th-century, when it was given the equally disparaging moniker of “dumbwaiter.” (The mechanical platform elevator that carries food between floors in a house or building, which we also know as a dumbwaiter, first appeared in the mid-1800s.) Revolving under various pseudonyms such as “étagère,” “self-waiting table,” “serviette,” and the deadpan, “butler’s assistant,” the Lazy Susan title was secured by an upshot of popularity in the 20th-century. Whether there ever existed an actual Susan remains untold.
During the Industrialization Revolution, more products and goods were becoming available to more people, producing the first generation of middle class citizens. The need for factory workers grew, while the number of servants available to each family began to decrease. Enter the Lazy Susan, which was among the touchstone pieces intended to supplant the role of house help. Its lasting appeal has always been its simple and intuitive design. Plates and dishes are placed on a disc, which rotates on top of a lower one. The device no less than revolutionized the way people interacted at the dinner table: Instead of ordering a maid or butler to bring the salt, you asked your son or wife to spin the item your way.
By the turn of the 20th-century, the Lazy Susan was introduced into households everywhere. It soon served the meals of notable figures, such as Henry Ford – who went on lavish trips to the countryside with a nine-foot-diameter Lazy Susan in tow. Although the typical household version was much smaller, it was nonetheless spiffed up for the average consumer. An advertisement in a 1917 issue of Vanity Fair refers to it as “the cleverest waitress in the world.”
In the post-World War II years, the Lazy Susan was a ubiquitous sight on dinner tables and kitchen countertops. A humorous short story by Frances McFadden, featured in Harper’s in 1956 under the title “Lazy Susan,” begins with the lines:
Among the contemporary iterations of the Lazy Susan is one by Eberhard Woike (of Philippi Design) called the “Lazy Susi,” which is sold at MoMA Design stores. First introduced into the museum’s collection in 2008, this version consists of a thick glass plate that rotates on several ball bearings. It looks ingenious, almost handsome. Aesthetically, it differs greatly from the Lazy Susan in my grandparents’ house in the Philippines. However, I can see that it works on the same fundamental understanding: a central part to every square meal that gets the family together. Let’s have ourselves a feast.