Feature

Niels Diffrient, 1928–2013

The designer who wedded form to function

If you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, you probably owe a word of thanks to Niels Diffrient. The American industrial designer was a pioneer in the field of ergonomics, making products designed to fit the human body. While many of his contemporaries prioritized form over function when designing seating, Diffrient used X-rays to study how human spines bend in seated positions, and based his blueprints on how people actually sit—or ought to. “Why would you design something,” he once asked, “if it didn’t improve the human condition?”

Born on a Mississippi farm, the young Diffrient showed a talent for product design, said The New York Times. “He had two books, the Sears Roebuck catalog and the Bible,” said his wife, Helena Hernmarck. Diffrient would spend hours sketching his own versions of Sears’s products, and later earned a place at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art. While studying, he worked as an assistant to renowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, with whom he collaborated on designing modernist chairs for furniture-maker Knoll.

The “defining moment” of Diffrient’s career came in 1955, when he joined the firm of industrial design giant Henry Dreyfuss, said FastCompany.com. “Dreyfuss introduced me to ‘human factors engineering,’” he said. “It’s now called ergonomics. We worked on making the machines fit people.” He helped design the sleek Princess telephone, the interiors of American Airlines jets, and the Polaroid SX-70 camera, which could be collapsed to fit in a jacket pocket. After leaving Dreyfuss in 1981, Diffrient focused on the office chair, said ArchitecturalRecord.com. Despairing that most ergonomic seats required users to “read a 20-page manual” before operating the various knobs and levers, he designed the Freedom Chair, which “senses the weight of the user and automatically adjusts to provide optimal support.”

Despite Diffrient’s career-long focus on function, he admitted to being a “sucker” for beautiful objects. His living room boasted several modernist chairs that he thought had been designed solely for visual affect. “I hardly ever sit in them,” Diffrient said. “I sit in a comfortable chair and look at them.”

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