June 20, 2013

Remembering the Genius of Niels Diffrient

The design world lost a legend on June 8th, when industrial designer, architect, artist and author Niels Diffrient died at the age of 84. (Interior Design had the honor of interviewing Diffrient in 2003 when the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, honored the designer with a National Design Award.)

The fruits of Diffrient’s genius can be seen in any office. He pioneered the use of ergonomics, or what he called human-factors engineering, in dozens of office furniture designs over the course of his 60+ year career. Two developments in particular revolutionized the task chair: the Humanscale 1/2/3, three rotary dial selectors that became the industry standard for designers, and his Freedom chair, which allowed the user’s weight to establish tilt resistance, relieving the need for any control mechanisms. The backs and spines of generations of office workers owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Diffrient designed far more that. Born in 1928, as the Great Depression ravaged his home state of Mississippi, and raised in Detroit, Diffrient graduated from the fabled Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he helped Eero Saarinen develop the masterpiece Model 71 and Model 72 chairs for Knoll. After graduation, he received a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Italy, where he collaborated with the architect and designer Marco Zanuso on a sewing machine for Borletti, which was awarded the Compass D’Oro at the 1957  Milan Triennale.

In 1955, he joined Dreyfuss Associates in their Pasadena offices, and spent the next few decades revolutionizing American industrial design through his development of interiors and corporate identity for American Airlines planes, the landmark Princess telephone, the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and tractor seats for John Deere. The various relationships these products enabled between man and machine led to 1967’s publication The Measure of Man, and a series with Alvin R. Tilley and Joan C. Bardagjy for MIT Press: 1974’s Humanscale 1/2/3, 1981’s Humanscale 4/5/6, and 1982’s Humanscale 7/8/9.

These publications inspired ranges of seating and lighting for the Humanscale company, Knoll, Sunar-Hauserman, Howe, and KI—a lifetime’s work that has been recognized by the Royal Society of Arts and Industry, who awarded him the title of Honorary Royal Designer of Industry in 1987, a 1999 Chrysler Design Award, and the 2002 National Design Award from Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

Diffrient is survived by his wife, the acclaimed textile artist Helena Hernmarck, and three children. An excerpt from his book Confessions of a Generalist follows:

I failed at academic studies in history, grammar, mathematics, languages, and all things based on abstract symbols. I was, by contrast, inexplicably intuitive in art, crafts, mechanics, building, engineering and all things related to real, tangible elements and circumstances.

I had incredible difficulty expressing myself in words, but, from a very early age, could draw remarkably well and shape or assemble anything. Memory of dates, abstract events and names were a struggle, whereas, retention of forms, mechanisms, and visual phenomena were long-lasting and accurate.

These contrasting traits could be the foundation for personal setbacks, disappointment and failure, but they weren’t. Instead, my unique traits—through good fortune, unplanned events and connections—opened a path for me to succeed, though sometimes illogically.

Remarkably, over time, my competency and sense of excellence in the things that came natural to me, seemed to transfer to those challenging skills allowing me to do better.

Photo by Sally Andersen Bruce.

Recent DesignWire