Niels Diffrient (6 September 1928 – 8 June 2013) was an American industrial designer. Diffrient focused mainly on ergonomic seating, and his most well known designs are the Freedom and Liberty chairs, manufactured by Humanscale.
During the Great Depression his family relocated to Detroit, where Diffrient attended Cass Technical High School. He then attended Wayne State University, and finally Cranbrook Academy of Art, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in design and architecture and excelled as an outstanding student, winning the First Medal in Design three of his four years there.
Upon arriving back in the United States in 1955, Diffrient 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. In 1980 after 25 years with Henry Dreyfuss Associates, Diffrient left to start his own independent practice, establishing a design studio in Ridgefield, Connecticut which he shared with his wife, tapestry artist Helena Hernmarck.
In his career, which has now lasted over a half century, Diffrient designed every type of equipment, as well as computers, exhibits, trucks, airplane interiors and corporate identity programs. He has also been broadly published in the field of design and human factors, most notably as co-author of the three-volume publication, Humanscale, in 1974 and 1981. He is credited with pioneering the use of ergonomics, or what he called human factors engineering, in dozens of office furniture designs.
Articles about him and his work have appeared in Time Magazine, Fortune, Business Week and The New York Times to name a few.
In the field of furniture design, most notably ergonomic seating, Niels has won a total of 24 awards, including two Best of Show and 10 Gold and Top awards. Diffrient holds more than 46 design and utility patents on furniture designs in America and abroad, and his many honors include the I.D. (magazine) Top 40 Design Innovators of 1996, the 1996 Chrysler Award for Innovation, the Smithsonian’s 2002 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Product Design, and the 2005 Legend Award from Contract magazine. In 2007, Forbes.com named Diffrient the "granddaddy of the ergonomic revolution" and one of ten "Tastemakers" in the field of industrial design. Diffrient is also an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry, awarded by the Royal Society of Arts and Industry, London. Lifetime Contribution to Design Award, FX Magazine International Interior Design Awards, 2012.
Products designed by Niels Diffrient
- Diffrient World Chair (Humanscale), 2009
- Liberty Chair (Humanscale), 2004
- Diffrient Task and Work Light (Humanscale), 2002
- Freedom Chair (Humanscale), 1999
- Flexible Workspace Furniture System (KI), 1998
- Helena Chair and Jefferson Chair (SunarHauserman), 1984
- Diffrient Chair (Knoll), 1979
- John Deere tractors (Henry Dreyfuss)
- Borletti Sewing Machine (Marco Zanuso)
- Confessions of a Generalist (Generalist Ink, LLC)
Diffrient, Niels. Confessions of a Generalist. Danbury, Conn.: Generalist Ink, LLC, 2012. Print.
Diffrient, Niels. Humanscale: Manual. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1974. Print.
Diffrient, Niels, Mildred S. Friedman, Joan Bardagjy, and Nicholas Polites. Dimensions of Experience: Understanding and Measuring Human Experience in the Designed Environment. Minneapolis, Minn: Walker Art Center, 1975. Print.
Lutz, Brian. Eero Saarinen: Furniture for Everyman. New York: Pointed Leaf Press, 2012. Print.
Pedersen, Martin C. "Niels Diffrient." Metropolis: Architecture Design 32.8 (2013): 88. Biography Reference Bank (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Dec. 2015.
- contractmagazine.com, Human Factor: A tribute to Niels Diffrient , accessed July 19, 2007.
- Dorris, Jesse (20 June 2013). "Remembering the Genius of Niels Diffrient". Interior Design. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Blake, Peter (1994). "Diffrient/Hernmarck". Interior Design. 65 (10): 140.
- Yardley, William (16 June 2013). "Niels Diffrient, Industrial Designer Who Blended Form and Function, Dies at 84". The New York Times. Retrieved 12 September 2013.
- Chrysler Design Awards
- Freedom Chair
- Liberty Chair
- Niels Diffrient Bio: Contract Magazine
- Neils Diffrient Bio: Design Within Reach
- Niels Diffrient rethinks the way we sit down - Video on TED.com
- Archives of American Art Oral History Interview with Niels Diffrient, 2010
- Henry Dreyfuss Associates
- Niels Diffrient at TED