Niels Diffrient, Father of Ergonomics, Dies at 84

Mourning the death of the great industrial designer and inspiring generalist


Niels Diffrient, the artist, architect, author, and industrial designer whose seminal research on ergonomics established standards for the furniture industry, died at his home in Ridgefield, Connecticut on June 8th. Diffrient was 84. His death was announced by wife, Helena Hernmarck, the internationally acclaimed textile artist.

Diffrient was born on September 6, 1928, on a farm near the small town of Star, Mississippi. In the first six years of his life, the national economy faltered and failed, and the Great Depression took an enormous toll on the lives of Mississippi farmers. Robert Diffrient, Niels’ father, left his family in 1934 and hitchhiked to Detroit to look for work. After a short time he found work in the automobile factories and sent for his wife and son. Niels’s imagination took root in the new setting.

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Lessons from the farm gave way to the experiences of northern schools, and his artistic interests flourished. Diffrient was fortunate in that the public school he attended was Cass Technical High School, where his interest in drawing airplanes led him to the curriculum for aeronautical engineering. He recalled in his recent autobiography,  Confessions of a Generalist, that he struggled with the scientific subjects at Cass until a fellow student saw his drawings and recommended that he transfer to the art department. Upon graduation, Diffrient was accepted at the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

During his years at Cranbrook, Diffrient was employed by the headmaster’s son Eero Saarinen, to assist in the development of two chairs Saarinen designed for production by Knoll Associates, the Model 71 and Model 72. Diffrient’s first exposure to the workings of a manufacturer bringing a design to production occurred in meetings between Saarinen and Florence and Hans Knoll.  “There was little talk of things like market share,” Diffrient recalled. “It was the days when there was mostly a lot of interest in proving modernist principles.”

Following Diffrient’s graduation from Cranbrook, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for study in Italy, where he met Marco Zanuso, the architect and designer. Zanuso asked Diffrient to work with him on the design of a sewing machine for the Italian company Borletti. Their design won the Compasso D’Oro award at the 1957 Milan Triennale, Diffrient’s first award for an industrial product.

On his return from Italy in 1955, Diffrient joined the New York-based design firm of Dreyfuss Associates in their Pasadena, California office. Henry Dreyfuss was a pioneering member of the emerging group that had come to be known as industrial designers. Diffrient had the primary responsibility for managing the designs for the Princess telephone, John Deere tractor seats, the Polaroid SX-70 camera, and the corporate identity and interiors of American Airlines aircraft.

The aspect of making machines fit people, or what Dreyfuss called human-factors engineering, ignited Diffrient’s interest. The collected information from Dreyfuss’s human-factors research was presented as anthropometric charts with an explanatory booklet in The Measure of Man, published by Mullen Books in 1967. Diffrient expanded on these findings with his own research and, together with Dreyfuss colleagues Alvin R. Tilley and Joan C. Bardagjy, he authored Humanscale 1/2/3 , which was published by MIT Press in 1974. Humanscale 1/2/3, a set of three rotary dial selectors, quickly became the standard reference for ergonomic engineering by architects and industrial designers. The first series was followed by Humanscale 4/5/6 in 1981, and Humanscale 7/8/9 in 1982.

In 1980 Diffrient left Dreyfuss to pursue an independent career in design, with a specific focus on products for the office, where, as he observed, “the most consistent ingredient is the chair.” The remaining years of Diffrient’s career consisted of the design and development of seating that changed the furniture industry’s approach to office chair design. He invested his intellect in the experience of sitting, not in the dazzle of a chair as an object. His explanation of how his Freedom chair, for Humanscale, eliminates the need for a tension control mechanism by having the chair use the occupant’s weight to determine tilt resistance, was a lesson in how Diffrient approached design: he made the chair smart, seeing that as an advancement over the conventional need of the occupant to master an archaic system of buttons and knobs and levers. In addition to his extensive range of seating and lighting for Humanscale, Diffrient designed products for Knoll International (1979), Sunar-Hauserman (1984), Howe (1992), and KI International (1998). Diffrient held nearly 60 patents on furniture, seating and mechanical systems; his honors and awards number in the hundreds.

In spite of his chosen area of professional specialization in furniture, Diffrient considered himself a generalist, which he defined as being “a kind of ombudsman between the user and his circumstance.” Diffrient took a path to his designs through experience, utility, and, finally, aesthetics, a process he considered the reverse of that used by specialist designers who start with form. While it may seem surprising, it is completely consistent with this life approach that Diffrient took up ice dancing for exercise and recreation when he retuned to New York in 1969, for in ice dancing he exhibited his customary flair for precision, grace and beauty, much like the qualities found in the 60 years of products which bear the imprint of his tireless intellect.

“Niels believed in the importance of function and knew that great design must be driven by it,” says Bob King, CEO of Humanscale. “This is why his products often transcend any specific time or place. What he believed in is so evident in his work that his legacy will live on through his designs. Some of the most joyful times in my life were those we spent together.” When King met Diffrient, King’s company did not produce chairs, but he recalled how after seeing Diffrient’s prototype designs for what became the Freedom chair, he felt like he had “just seen the future of task seating.”

A fitting summary of Diffrient’s legacy can be found in the words of Helena Hernmarck: “It was Niels’ intention to enlarge on his unique approach to design which he hoped would lead the field of product design towards becoming a recognized profession, as opposed to being an activity. Niels was always true to the standards of usefulness. If a product was not useful, he referred to it as decorative art.”

Diffrient is survived by his wife, Helena Hernmarck, and three children: Scott and his partner Florence Sohn, Julie and her husband Nigel Miller, Emily and his brother Roy Diffrient and his sister Betty Herring.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests gifts to Cranbrook Academy of Art. These may be sent to:

Niels Diffrient Memorial Fund

Cranbrook Academy of Art

39221 Woodward Avenue, PO Box 801

Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48303-0801

Brian Lutz worked in the New York sales division of Knoll before moving to Helsinki where he served as export director for Artek Oy Ab, the company that oversees sales and distribution of the furniture of Alvar Aalto. Lutz is the author of Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman, published by Pointed Leaf Press in 2012, and Knoll: A Modernist Universe, a history of the company published by Rizzoli in 2010.

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