Ever since his student days, assisting Eero Saarinen at his Michigan studio, Niels Diffrient has treated engineering and user-friendliness as equally important as aesthetics. And he's proven himself adept at applying this philosophy to everything from thermostats to furniture. A sewing machine designed with Italian architect Marco Zanuzo won Diffrient a Compasso d'Oro award as early as 1957. Over the decades that followed, recognition continued to pour in. Consider Diffrient's Freedom chair, which automatically adjusts to the sitter's movements—without extraneous, unattractive knobs. Designed for Humanscale, the chair has won 10 awards since 1999. Just four months ago, the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, honored Diffrient with a National Design Award.
After all the honors you've received, does the National Design Award change anything for you?
ND: Well, it makes me feel confident for a while. Creating in the arts and design is sometimes a lonely exercise because you're out in ambiguous ether, doing things that can't be measured absolutely, like in math or science. You're never too sure where leading-edge work will lead you, whether it will be good or useful. So it helps to get recognized occasionally.
Do you ever wonder if a design won't do well?
ND: Constantly. There's always risk and uncertainty in going beyond the norm, and you think, Gosh, this is done so differently from what everyone else has been doing that it may not succeed. But if there isn't risk, there isn't gain.
Were you always interested in the design philosophy of user-friendliness?
ND: Not directly, although it's almost inherent to designing a product, because a product implies use. It's not fine art, with no utility. If you're designing something, you take certain things into consideration, even if you're not aware of it. For example, it would be ridiculous to design a pencil that weighs 10 pounds.
What sparked your interest on a conscious level?
ND: I trace my specific interest in human factors, which is the original term for ergonomics, to the mid-1950s when I was working for Henry Dreyfuss. Henry had become interested in human factors during World War II, when the concept was developed to help people fit into war equipment like the cockpit of a plane. Henry carried on that idea in his business, and I picked up on it and studied it with specialists as much as I could over the years.
It's the chicken-and-egg question. Which comes first for a product, the look or the engineering?
ND: In the early years of my career, I used to start with the look. Then I got more deeply involved in ergonomics and began to work in a different way, trying to understand the needs of an individual performing a certain action, like sitting down. I focus on the individual functions of an ergonomic chair, and I invent mechanisms for each. Of course, all the time I'm doing this, it occurs to me that I have to make some type of attractive form.
How do you go about exploring and researching?
ND: Well, you don't leave it to intuition. You rely on advice and data from experts who have actually used the product. It's a great source of inspiration to listen to people about how things should work.
Would you ever consider reintroducing or reinventing one of your older designs?
ND: Yes, one of my earliest commercial furniture designs. It was called the Jefferson chair, named for a chair in the study of Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello. My task chair reclined, and it had support accessories, like a keyboard platform, that helped you do your work while reclining. It gathered a lot of publicity when it came out in 1984, but it's out of production now, and I feel that the time is right for another version. Everybody expends so much energy to sit bolt upright—all that effort can be reduced and redirected into your work.
of the ergonomics data you've compiled throughout your career was
published in a series called Humanscale. Is there a connection to the
ND: After I'd started working on the Freedom chair for a company then called Softview Computer Products, I talked to the president, Bob King, and I discovered that there were actually three sister companies, each with a different name. I suggested amalgamating them under a single name. They decided that Humanscale was a good fit, so they bought the rights to it.
Haven't you also designed a lamp for Humanscale?
ND: Yes, it's been introduced but has yet to be manufactured. It's expected to go into production early this year. I think they're calling it the Diffrient light.