Wikipedia will tell you the basics about the accomplished industrial designer Niels Diffrient. Born in 1928, he graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and studied design in Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. He worked at the Henry Dreyfuss studio in New York, designing for some of the top consumer-goods companies in America, then led the firm himself. He taught design at UCLA and Yale, and eventually went out on his own.
What Wikipedia doesn’t reveal is Niels’ poor, Depression-era childhood in Mississippi and then Detroit, and how early in life he discovered his calling in a most unlikely location.
“In Detroit we were poor and had no room for a studio in the apartment,” says Niels. “But in the basement of the apartment house there were trunk lockers—tiny, four-by-four spaces with hasps for a padlock. I set up a studio for myself in one and it was great. I could reach everything without getting up, and I would build model airplanes.”
Designing with the Human Factor
Niels considers airplanes, and especially high-performance sailplanes, to be some of the best-designed products ever, “because they have to be.” His first design love continues to ply the air in the form of an awe-inspiring ceiling fan he created for his wife, Helena Hernmarck. In the lofty space over Helena’s weaving studio is a large, translucent airplane wing, its structural ribs revealed, perfectly counterbalanced by a sleek, propeller-driven, torpedo-shaped weight.
“I always avoided becoming a specialist,” Niels explains. Being a generalist has allowed him to move across disciplines, the better to come up with optimal solutions. “If I were sick, I would much rather see a good GP than a specialist. If you go to a surgeon, he wants to cut.”
Niels’ allegiance to cross disciplines is why you and I might owe him some thanks for those objects in our life that just feel right. It’s possible these objects were inspired by his Human Factors, a three-volume series of nine plastic rotating selectors that allow industrial designers to dial in human dimensions in the various ways humans engage objects. Originally published in the 1970s, the book is now wildly expensive to reproduce—hence original editions are all the more prized by designers.
Sculpture that loves you
Both chairs look like art objects. They took Niels years to perfect, working with one assistant in his studio, drawing and prototyping parts, testing assemblies, redrawing and retesting in a diligent, determined quest for perfection. Around his studio are prototype arm assemblies, cross-sections of seat pans, and various other chairs-in-the-making. “No chair takes me less than five years to design,” Niels explains.
The Freedom, which is the older of the chairs, is best if you sit for long hours in front of a computer. The long, 7” range of height in the arm adjustment allows you to keep a 90-degree angle in your arms as you type. Freedom is also the right choice if you’re 6’4” or taller, or very large. The chair allows you to lean forward and also to lean back, when you want to stretch out and relax. Reclining is especially easy with the headrest model (which is the model I use, in blue fabric, at home).
If you really want to relax occasionally and don’t mind looking like you’re goofing off, the matching ottoman is the bee’s knees. Since the contract market didn’t relish the idea of employees putting their feet up, Niels says it’s also described as a visitor stool.
The Liberty chair is optimal if you’re always getting up and moving around, which is why I use it at my office at Levenger. The back design, fashioned out of three pieces of mesh, was a breakthrough for Niels—and for your back. I always have to have strong lumbar support; Liberty, with no mechanism and only mesh, is absolutely divine.
Sitting in a Niels Diffrient chair is like sitting in sculpture that loves you.
Good design should work and then be beautiful, too, says Niels. “Is it merchandise or is it art? The truth is, it’s both.”
Keeping computers at bay
Niels and Helena work in twin studios under the same roof, in the Scandinavian-style back house of their compound in rural Connecticut. On my recent visit there with Lori, I noticed something was missing.
In Niels’ studio there are no computers.
He does have them for email and so his assistant can help with the digital design work, but the computers are hidden away in a secondary space. They are out of sight “out of principle,” says Niels.
“They are the devil’s device, designed to frustrate, and now we’ve begun to see the consequences of digital life. Computers create ripe circumstances for un-civility. Look at what hackers are able to do now—cloak and dagger stuff on a huge scale. What they are capable of is far-reaching and insidious.”
Niels does all his creative work and drawing at full scale, on two giant drafting boards that face one another on either side of a large window in his airy studio. Only later, after he’s satisfied with his hand-drawn design, does he have draftsmen commit his creations to computerized drawings for rendering and further development.
And while there are no computers, there are plenty of books. He pulled one down for us that tells the design story of one of his favorite objects, the original Morris Mini automobile. The designer, Alec Issigonis, “started from scratch in an effort to make the largest space inside for humans, in the smallest package outside,” says Niels. “He had to do several things completely differently from existing automobile design.”
Does he like Porsches, too, I ask?
“Yes, but when I really wanted one, I couldn’t afford it, and now that I can afford it, I no longer want one.”
After my interview with Niels, Lori and I toured Helena’s serene space, where stately wooden looms cascade with color, the yarns soon to be transformed into sought-after tapestries. From there we walked over to their other house—the one where they eat and sleep, entertain and read, but do not work.
Inside their living home are choice sculptures and paintings from friends and beloved teachers, set in open, uncluttered spaces characteristic of Scandinavian design. Some of Niels’ older furniture designs and Helena’s smaller tapestries adorn. They even collaborate, with Niels doing some of the designs for Helena’s more geometric tapestries.
For all the beautiful objects and spaces on their property, the best was their combined effect: a demonstration of what lives could be like, in an ideal setting where computers are kept in their place, and people design beautiful things and live graciously.
It happened to be one of those magical sunny days in New England when we visited, when spring was singing its main number, not yet ready to relinquish the stage to summer. None of us wanted to rush as we strolled over the gravel drive and gazed out over their sloping, shaded lawn to the pond where geese slept and swam. But then reality set in a bit as Niels and Helena accompanied us to our car to say goodbye. The man who loves design that soars had some down-to-earth advice for us.
“We’ve both had skin cancer,” said Niels. “Wear your sun block.”
And you, dear reader? Have you been able to create you own version of studio living--a place to work and a place to not? I'd love to hear your comments. Just click on the Comments link below with your submission. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).