As the godfather of ergonomics – or “human factor engineering” as he prefers to call it – American designer Niels Diffrient, aged somewhere around the 78 mark (but he prefers not to confirm this), revolutionised office task chair design with his Freedom chair for Humanscale in 1999. Its impact has boosted the comparatively small company to the top of the task chair sales charts in only six years.
At Orgatec it was barely possible to find a stand that didn’t claim to have an ergonomic chair. But Diffrient’s Freedom and Liberty chairs take the word to another level. He puts the “ergo” into ergonomics. “For me, the ergonomic objective can never be compromised. The dilemma in the office furniture field is that not many people can distinguish between what looks functional and what is functional,” he says. People rely so heavily on their visual sense that they become seduced by the look. He feels it’s a similar phenomenon to “starchitects” such as Zaha Hadid and Will Alsop who design “wow-buildings” that are known to have flaws such as leakage. “Nearly every furniture manufacturer can claim to have an ergonomic chair because the purchasing people don’t know the engineering process well enough to challenge it. I could challenge every chair in this place but that would be against my professional ethics,” he says. So what is the difference between his chairs and others?
“My take, when it comes to technicalities, is that if the average person cannot comprehend the basic performance of the product then you’ve failed,” Diffrient asserts. “With my chairs – take Freedom for example – it’s immediately obvious that the armrests work magnificently. They are synchronised and move up and down further than any other chair. You can move them with one hand and it works for you without needing to reach underneath in search for some knobs.”
Diffrient spent over a year on the armrest, because he develops each part of each product separately. “I’m always motivated to gain an improvement in all aspects of the body support,” he says. So he put gel into the armrest, seeing that the compressible fluid spreads the load, fulfilling the first rule of comfort. “I’m not aiming at cost and efficiency, which is the usual engineering objective, I’m aiming at human compliance.”
The same attention was given to the headrest that automatically comes up to support your head in a vertical position when you recline, to help hold your head upright without strain. Without these functions the headrest is simply an optical affirmation of office hierarchy. “There are also subtleties that are somewhat beyond the average person’s recognition but they get them for free,” Diffrient grins. Like the contour of the cushions, the proper curvature to support the back and the seat – together they all form a fairly complex basis.
According to Diffrient, there is a very simple description of comfort, and that is absence of stress. “I design on a fundamental principle: absence of stress, absence of pressure, absence of anything that concentrates undesirable forces, psychological or physiological.”
For instance, his Liberty chair, first launched in 2004, improves upon previous mesh office chairs with its tri-panel fitted to the back like a tailored shirt. The construction matches the curvature of the back not just in the usual direction, up and down, but also side to side. The mesh displaces rather than stretches, automatically providing perfect lumbar support for everyone – without the sitter having to adjust it.
“To me that was the rationale to do a mesh chair, I never would have done it for the fashion,” Diffrient says. “I used to be sceptical of mesh chairs because of the flexible back, which allows bad posture. It won’t give you lumbar support so you must put a little bar to hold your back in place. But that again means pressure with the load concentrated in a small place.”
The Liberty fits like a glove. You almost forget you’re actually sitting on a chair. Diffrient says when he designs a product, the look is the last thing he thinks of. And indeed his chairs are aesthetically plain. But he believes “A good design is when people say: ‘Oh it’s so simple!’” Diffrient is an inventor, designer and human engineer. He is also surprisingly vain. For our cover shoot, I had planned to tie in his themes with his products’ attributes: human factor plus sustainable design equals office chair with creator in forest. After all, Humanscale was just recently celebrated for its green ideals, with founder Robert King being listed in the Who’s Who: The Eco-Guide.
But Diffrient gets concerned about the shoot and needs assurance – he doesn’t want to look old or silly. “Can you make me look more like Paul Newman or Robert Redford?” He even suggests using a body double, but I guess that’s a joke. I’m amazed how much he cares, but he explains:
“I’m a Virgo, I always pick away at things. I’m fussy like that with my work too, until I get it right.” In the end, we manage to lure him off the Orgatec stand into the Kölner forest and before you know it, he’s swirling around contentedly on his chair.
“My approach to sustainability differs slightly from Bob King’s,” Diffrient says. “Bob makes sure we use 85 per cent recycled, not just recyclable material, whereas I think: How efficient is the chair? How many parts are in it? How light or heavy is it? Our chairs use half the amount of parts than most on the market, which is right away doing something for the environment. My chair is half the standard weight.”
Besides the chairs and a saddle seat, Diffrient has also designed a lamp for Humanscale, but the root of his ergonomic proclivity lies in his previous position. He spent 25 years working for Henry Dreyfuss Associates, a broad-based design consultancy that designed everything from telephones and Polaroid cameras to John Deere tractors and passenger aircraft interiors for American Airlines. But the most formative experience taken from Dreyfuss, besides “becoming associate, then partner and later buying the company together with the partners when Dreyfuss retired in 1969”, was the introduction to the world of human factor engineering, the basis of current ergonomics today. Dreyfuss had realised while designing for the army during the second world war that in order to design a product to match the person, you need to understand the limitations of what they are doing. So he studied how to arrange, for example, a tank or aeroplane by using the only data available: the measurements taken by the army for the sizes of the uniforms. That was the start of ergonomics in his business.
Diffrient went on to publish a design reference classic, a trilogy called Humanscale, with a circular slide rule, a disc with windows showing height, weight and proportion diagrams as an easy, user-friendly reference tool. “We used existing data from official sources. But the human factor engineers had never realised that they were breaking their own rules by presenting data in a way that no one could use except another human factor engineer. So we simply human engineered the presentation of the data,” he says.
Humanscale was studied by designers worldwide and Robert King bought the name of Diffrient’s publication to found a company under that name in 1983. Originally it manufactured ergonomic office accessories, such as keyboard support and non-glare screens. It wasn’t until 15 years later that Bob King decided to venture into the office chair market and approached Diffrient. “I remember when he came to me I liked his attitude, his vision,” he recalls. “Then he started describing a chair to me that he wanted to produce and I realised he was depicting a chair I had already designed in private.” In essence, it was what we now know as the Freedom chair.
So, why chairs? After all those different product designs, what made Diffrient go into office furniture? “What I like about a chair is that I can grasp it, in it’s entirety,” he replies.
He pulls a pen from his pocket and starts drawing on my notepad. I find myself mesmerised by this elderly gentleman’s power and promptness with the pen. “One thing that I could always do, that indicated where I’d end up,” Diffrient smiles, “was that I could draw. From two years old I would draw.” So we go back, way back to a little farm in Mississippi, were Diffrient was born. And Diffrient is different. A quarter Danish with American Indian blood in his veins, he used to copy pictures out of the farmer’s catalogue in his parents’ house. Later they moved to Detroit, where he specialised in aeronautical engineering at school, only to find that it was all about mathematics when all he wanted to do was draw. So he switched to art and later graduated in design and architecture.
The crucial crossroads in his career were linked to his mentors who helped pave the way for his ongoing success. First and foremost, there was Eero Saarinen. Saarinen, famous for his expressive and curvy architecture, spotted Diffrient’s talent while he was still at the Cranbrook Academy and took him on as his assistant for five years. “This is when I assisted in the design of a chair that eventually went into production – Saarinen’s model 71/72 manufactured by the Knoll company in 1952. And that chair is still in the line today.”
After the work experience with the Finnish architect came the Italian job. “I went to Milan to study at the Politecnico but I didn’t like it,” says Diffrient. Why? “Because it was all in Italian. Also, at that time in Italy, architecture was taught as the “mother art”. But I had already trained in both design for buildings as well as design for production.” So he decided to turn to Gio Ponti, editor and founder of Domus magazine, for some advice on who best to learn from. Ponti gave him two names: Marcello Nizzoli and Marco Zanuzo. The first was a sculptor who said he worked alone, but the second had a commission to design a sewing machine, and so they began working together. Six months later they completed the Borletti sewing machine, which went on to win a Compasso d’Oro award at the Milan Triennale in 1957.
“I must say that Italian engineers are more artistically orientated then most. They understand aesthetics,” Diffrient remembers. “And the fact that, despite only being 21 at the time, they called me Il Maestro – it was pretty different to the US, too.” Nonetheless, he moved back across the Atlantic when Dreyfuss offered him a job and the rest is ergonomic design history.
“The thing that always got me working as a consulting designer was that I always felt if you don’t control the brief from design right through to the engineering, you can’t make the best of the opportunity. I enjoyed the clients and the top-quality products. But all the time I was thinking that there must be a better way,” says Diffrient. And the better way, he eventually concluded, was to leave, not take any of the clients with him and start over as an independent inventor. “So now I dream up the product, develop it, do the ergonomics analysis and then sell the rights to it.”
Today, Diffrient has 45 patents, sells rights to his designs, and is paid the royalties. “That makes much more sense to me”, he says. “If a design fails I don’t get anything and if it’s a success I get a lot. That way you work harder, too.” Currently, he shares his studio in Ridgefield, CT, with his wife Helena Hernmarck, the successful tapestry designer.
Diffrient is obviously still going strong and there’s no end in sight. He tells me about a new chair he’s being working on for a while and we may even get to see a prototype next year. So what can we expect to see, I ask. “Full action, no mechanism!” Interesting… maybe a swing? Let’s see, but whatever it may be, it will certainly be Diffrient.