If you are sitting in a very comfortable chair, you may owe your good fortune to designer Niels Diffrient, who died on June 8 at age 84 after a brief illness. Forbes magazine once called him “the granddaddy of ergonomic design.” He was that and so much more—the co-author with Alvin R. Tilley and Joan Bardagjy of a series of books called Humanscale 1-9, the designer of the Humanscale Freedom and Liberty chairs, Sunar Hauserman’s Helena and Jefferson Chairs, and Knoll Diffrient Chairs as well as of John Deere tractors, Trimline telephones, cockpits and truck cabs, and American Airlines graphics. He was also the author of a recent autobiography, Confessions of a Generalist, a speaker at TED conferences, and the recipient of 24 major national and international design awards.
Diffrient was born in rural Mississippi in 1928 and grew up in Detroit. He attended Cass Technical High School and Wayne State University and then graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art where he studied painting and architecture. When he was still a student, he worked for Eero Saarinen while the architect was designing the Womb Chair for Knoll International. Upon graduation, on a Fulbright Scholarship in Milan, Diffrient met Domus magazine editor Gio Ponti, Memphis Group founder Ettore Sottsass, and Marco Zanuso, with whom he designed a Borletti sewing machine.