Neils Diffrient: American Innovator
You don’t just wake up one morning and design one of the best-selling office chairs of all time. No, of course not.
You design sewing machines, airplane seats, plus the John Deere tractor and spend some time teaching at the best American universities first.
Well, if you’re Neils Diffrient, now 83-years old, that’s how you’d structure a six-decade long career as one of America’s best-known and most respected industrial designers.
It’s hard to imagine a world of ergonomics without the contributions of Niels Diffrient. In 1955 Diffrient x-rayed the spine in a chair to see first-hand the effects of office chairs on our bodies, becoming the first American designer to examine the needs of the body rather than the needs of the office environment:
“For a chair, you have to learn a lot about how to deal with the body and what the body needs and wants….The one thing [office workers] don’t need is a chair that interferes with their main reason for sitting [in the office], so I took the approach that the chair should do as much for them as humanly possible…so that they didn’t have to fuss with it.”
The result is the iconic Freedom task chair, one of Humanscale’s best-selling products for the past decade. By eliminating manual adjustments Diffrient created a new standard in ergonomics, one where the user exerts minimal effort in order to enjoy the many features of the Freedom task chair. The Freedom chair adjusts to each user’s weight using the intelligent counterbalance mechanism. From adjustable arm rests to a position-sensitive headrest that automatically moves out of the way when sitting upright, the adjustments are not just automatic, but numerous on the Freedom chair.
Diffrient often cites “restraint” and “efficiency” as his primary focus in his design. While many contemporary designers begin with a sketch of the final product, Diffrient begins his work on the chair mechanism—the function—before concerning himself with the aesthetics of the chair.
Discussing his newest chair design, the Diffrient World chair by Humanscale, he calmly and with a remarkable sense of lucidity dismisses the idea that a chair should be seductive or compelling. Again he explains favoring function over form: “It’s more important to stick around, that’s part of efficiency.” He explains that his newest chair design did not come to him in the form of a “thunderbolt” but rather after “years of practice and focus.”
Considering Diffrient’s proclivity for and emphasis on efficient, functional design, it’s remarkable that he’s been so successful in creating stylistically iconic chairs for the past two decades. What’s more, the rest of America’s industrial designers could take his commitment to efficiency, not just in design but in manufacturing, as a challenge to simplify their own designs. Touching on what he calls his “old fashion term: efficiency,” Diffrient explains how this goal is not only beneficial for the chair’s user, but for the environment:
"Efficiency was around and answering a lot of our needs long before this focus on the environment. If one makes one’s approach to design to be efficient, it includes all of the factors all of the factors needed to be environmentally responsible.”
It’s truly hard to imagine an 83-year old who is more ahead of his time than Niels Diffrient. With his newest and perhaps most impressive chair now available, we’d encourage anyone who values efficiency, fantastic design and a commitment to the environment to check out the Diffrient World chair by Humanscale.