L.A. at Home

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Category: Back Story

Back Story: The men behind a sweet design

This week we revived an occasional feature called Back Story, in which Bettijane Levine tells the story behind everyday objects at home. On Thursday she posted an item on the mystery behind the Lazy Susan and its unknown origins. When she launched this series back in 2008, Levine tracked down one of the creators of another iconic item: a beautifully simple sugar shaker that you'll still find in diners and homes across the country. The original article is seemingly impossible to find online anymore, so we're reposting it here. Look for more installments in the next couple of weeks. Here's Levine's 2008 article:

BackStory_Sugar Consider this humble sugar shaker, a staple of kitchens and coffee shops across the land. About 35 million have been sold -- maybe double that if you include all the knockoffs -- and not one of them labeled a work of art.

Yet that's exactly what they are, says design historian Bill Stern, a connoisseur of ubiquitous and unsung objects. "This decanter is iconic," he says, "the very essence of modernism, a perfect meld of function and form."

Stern, the guiding force behind the development of the Museum of California Design, extols the comfortable swell of the shaker's glass belly, which is shaped to be cradled in the palm. And the clean gleam of its smooth, slightly canted metal top, which cues a user's eye to tilt in the right direction. And the placement of the pouring flap, ingeniously engineered "so that when you tip the shaker," Stern says, "the whole weight of the contents is concentrated at the precise point where it has to come out."

Previous models were inferior, he says. They didn't pour easily, and they collected dirt. But this design?

"There's not a whit of unnecessary decoration," he says. "It's made inexpensively but responsibly, so it won't prematurely break or wear out. Viewed at a distance, it is an extremely elegant object." And those are just some of the reasons it's still around.

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Back Story: Who was Susan, and was she truly lazy?

Lazy Susan

If you love a domestic mystery, consider the case of the Lazy Susan. This humble household helper has slogged through centuries essentially unchanged.

Despite its enduring popularity, definitive documentation on the design’s origins remain oddly elusive. Logic dictates that some time long ago, a sloth named Susan inspired the entire galaxy of twirling servers. Who was she? And who invented the turntable trays that link her forever with an insulting adjective?

It’s a very cold case. Amateur Internet sleuths credit two Thomases (Jefferson and Edison) for the invention, allegedly named after sluggish daughters. Historians say there’s no proof to back either assertion.

Americans tend to think Lazy Susans are kitschy relics of the 1950s and 1960s, but the lineage turns out to be longer and more distinguished. Historians can trace the concept to 18th century England, when it was probably known as a dumbwaiter. It may have become popular at a time when household servants were in declining supply. In the absence of maids or footmen to refill wine goblets and deliver condiments, diners were forced to reach across the table or interrupt conversation with "pass the pimientos please." The Lazy Susan helped to solve that problem, and plenty of 18th century examples prove it. In January, a mahogany Lazy Susan — 16 inches in diameter and dated circa 1780 — sold at Christie’s auction house in London for about $3,900. (That's it, above.)

"It's a great mystery," says Sarah Coffin, head of the product design and decorative arts department at the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York. "I have no idea who first came up with Lazy Susans, although I've wondered. I'm pretty sure the name is a 20th century invention. But the earliest forms I know of are from 1720s and 1730s England. Many were pedestal tables with rotating tops used for wine and tea tasting. I’ve also seen versions with silver trays fitted into the tabletop."

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