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“Niels Diffrient-The Legacy of this ‘Granddaddy of Ergonomics’ lives on at Humanscale”, Alastair Stubbs, Humanscale

Humanscale Freedom Chair designed by Niels Diffrient and released in 1999

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photographs: Humanscale

ALASTAIR STUBBS, Country Manager India, Humanscale


Founded in 1983 at the dawn of the dotcom age by CEO Robert King, Humanscale started off as a modest company that produced add-on work tools to make life at office workstations more comfortable. The New York-based company’s earliest products included anti-glare screens and plastic copyholders. In the early ’90s, Humanscale made its first mark as a pioneer of workplace ergonomics by introducing revolutionary articulating keyboard systems to the market. Then came the game-changing collaboration with the late legendary designer Niels Diffrient in 1999.

Diffrient was known as a leading specialist in ergonomic seating, but his path to the revolutionary designs that are now his legacy began in the most unexpected of ways. As a child in the ’30s, Diffrient became fascinated with aeroplanes, which at that time incorporated some of the world’s most advanced technology. He drew them, he built models of them, and eventually he began to make technical drawings of them in order to better understand the discipline of flying. He enrolled in an aeronautical engineering course, but to his surprise the class focused on mathematics and mechanics instead of drawing. Before long he transferred to the art department, and began hiring himself out as a designer.

For 25 years after graduating he worked with Marco Zanuso and Henry Dreyfuss, and designed (among other things) plane interiors for American Airlines and the foldable Polaroid SX-70 instant camera. Eventually, feeling that his passion for design had begun to run dry, he struck out on his own. With aeroplane technology having entered a complex (and in Diffrient’s view, unromantic) new phase, his attention was drawn to office chairs – a category of product that he had addressed numerous times during his career. It was a decisive shift of attention to the human body and to very tangible forms for his design principles and ideas.

Diffrient had always put human factors first in his designs. In 1955 he researched and documented the effect of chairs on human bodies by x-raying a human spine in a chair. By 1974, he had published three booklets on human-factor engineering (now known as ergonomics), which were later republished into a book titled Humanscale 1/2/3. He published Humanscale 4/5/6 in 1981 and Humanscale 7/8/9 the following year.

Most of the office chairs on the market during the ’80s and ’90s looked like high-tech machines with multiple paddles, levers and knobs – each to be manually adjusted to ensure maximum comfort for the user. Having explored ergonomic design for decades, Diffrient was convinced that the complicated mechanisms would be lost on most users. He believed that true ergonomic chairs should adjust to the user, not the other way around.

Diffrient’s studies on the relationship between the human spine and the chair became fully realised in 1998 for Humanscale. Rolled out in 1999, the Freedom chair broke new ground by combining unprecedented functionality with minimal manual controls. The success of the chair catapulted Humanscale to the forefront of the office chair business.

Freedom does away with the complexities of manual adjustments. The chair features an internal counterbalance mechanism that, with the help of the laws of physics, will automatically adjust its recline to the sitter’s bodyweight. Other notable features include an articulating headrest and a patented synchronous armrest that moves up and down in synch.

Diffrient’s approach started from function. “When I design a chair, I design it by sub actions – the armrests make one action, the seat height is another action, the backrest tilt is another action. All those are separate actions, and each one has to be efficient and use the right material,” he said. “I have always started with a process that allows me to work those things out on an isolated basis before I worry about how it’s going to look.

“Freedom was followed up by another successful chair in 2004. The Liberty chair takes task chair comfort to a new level by introducing form-sensing mesh as a chair back. Diffrient likened the design of the chair to a tailored suit. Other Humanscale chairs designed by Diffrient include Diffrient World, which is constructed from no more than eight major parts that are 97 per cent recyclable and 50 per cent lighter, and Diffrient Smart, which features a streamlined lumbar support.

Diffrient passed away in 2013, but his legacy and quest for the perfect ergonomics lives on at Humanscale where an in-house team of ergonomics consultants work with shared core beliefs.


About The Writer
ALASTAIR STUBBS, Country Manager India of Humanscale, the pioneer and leader in office ergonomics.

Alastair relocated from England to India and has been based in Bangalore for the past 8 years, with his Punjabi wife and two children. He holds OCI status which is a lifetime visa. This is something he looks upon very positively, feeling India is now home. He has 29 years of experience in office interiors and prior to Humanscale, he worked with brands such as Vitra, Bene and Herman Miller. In 1994, he started a marketing company called Exposure. After a few years, this business evolved into a design centre – Studiowest – a working space for the London architect & design community. It was here that he was introduced to Humanscale and the Freedom Task Chair became a permanent exhibit at Studiowest. His passion and dedication to office seating brought him on board to Humanscale. He & his team are on a mission to build an ergonomic India.

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