Niels Diffrient, an industrial designer who focused on chairs that suited the human form, died at 84 on Saturday. A partner at Humanscale for more than 16 years, Diffrient made a lasting impact on the field of ergonomic design, in particular with the Freedom chair, which debuted in 2000.
Diffrient was born in 1928 in Mississippi but relocated to Michigan, where he attended Wayne State University and the Cranbrook Academy of Art (now the Cranbrook Educational Community). He earned honors as a student, receiving the First Medal in Design for three of the four years he spent earning his bachelor's degree in architecture and design at Cranbrook. Diffrient later traveled to Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship.
For Henry Dreyfuss Associates, where Diffrient worked for more than 25 years, the designer honed his understanding of ergonomic form in industrial design applications for such clients as American Airlines and the John Deere tractor company. His experience with Dreyfuss led him to publish a three-volume publication, starting in 1974 with Humanscale 1/2/3, on various human factors for which industrial designers were not adequately accounting.
Diffrient left Henry Dreyfuss Associates to launch his own practice in the early 1980s. Possibly his greatest work came at a point that many designers would describe as a full career—and yet the award-winning Freedom chair was the first of many pieces Diffrient would design for Humanscale. The 2004 Liberty chair won him a place in the 2007 National Design Triennial at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. Humanscale released his design for the Diffrient World Chair in 2009.
Many of Diffrient's most transformative designs are now common across the design industry—chairs that are sensitive to a user's weight, for example, and do not require the use of levers for adjustments. "The best way to know what people want is not by asking them, but by understanding them," reads a quote from Diffrient on the wall of the Humanscale booth at NeoCon 2013, taking place today.
Diffrient is survived by his wife, textile artist Helena Hernmarck, their three children, and a brother and sister.