Renowned designer Niels Diffrient, who changed the landscape of ergonomic seating, has died. Diffrient was referred to by Forbes magazine as the “grandaddy of ergonomic revolution” for his previously unpracticed emphasis on the “human factor” in design. His famous three-volume treatise Human Scale, published in 1974, inspired future designers to take the shapes, patterns and preferences of the human body into consideration when designing a chair. All along, Diffrient’s commitment to the good of humanity remained intact. “Why would you design something,” he asked in the New York Times in 2003, “if it didn't improve the human condition?”
Diffrient was born in Mississippi and educated at the Cranbrook Academy and Wayne State University, during which he worked with Eero Saarinen and Marco Zanuso. After school he was recruited by Henry Dreyfuss and Associates, where he worked for 25 years before setting up his own studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in 1980. It was there, working for himself and overseeing every aspect of the design and manufacture process, that he developed the Freedom Chair (above). Nine years in the making, the Freedom was introduced in 1999. In conceptualizing this now-iconic task chair, he contemplated how typical office workers interacted with their environment and concluded that “the chair should do as much for them as is humanly possible,” as he noted in his February 2002 TED Talk. “Why,” he goes on to say, should you get a 20-page manual on how to run a chair?” This mentality – that ergonomic seating should be so intuitively suited to the human body that it requires minimal manual adjustments – represented a revolution in ergonomic seating and solidified his legacy in the design world. His work in the realm of task chair design continued with the introduction of the Liberty™ Chair in 2005 for Humanscale, the evolution of which was explored in depth in this 2004 feature in Metropolis magazine.
Diffrient was the recipient of numerous awards, including a 1996 Chrysler Award for Innovation and the Smithsonian’s 2002 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Product Design. But the designer’s legacy remains the way he transformed ergonomic chair design into an entirely human endeavor, allowing people to spend more time thinking about work and less time thinking about their chair.