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Niels Diffrient, 84, noted industrial designer and author

Niels Diffrient

Niels Diffrient

Niels Diffrient, internationally revered industrial designer and author, died on Saturday at his home.  He was 84.

A Ridgefield resident for 32 years, Diffrient is best known for his industrial design advancements throughout his 60 year career.  He designed a broad range of successful products with his pioneering ergonomic approach that has since helped an entire generation of designers and architects improve the way they design.

On September 6, 1928, he was born in Star, Mississippi.  He was raised modestly in a small farm house with his father, Robert, and his mother, Dovie Lee.  During the depression, his family moved to Detroit where he attended Wayne State University before he entered Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1949.  During his time at Cranbrook, he worked for Eero Saarinen which is where he first experienced the design and development of contemporary furniture working on the famous Saarinen chairs known as Knoll Model #71 and #72. While with Saarinen, he met other notable American architects like Kevin Roche and became friends with significant American designers such as Buckminster Fuller.

After graduating with a B.F.A. in Design and Architecture from Cranbrook, Diffrient moved to Milan.  Supported by a Fulbright Grant to Italy for Design and Architecture, he worked with the famous Italian architect, Marco Zanuzo, assisting with the design of a Borletti sewing machine which won the coveted Compasso D’Oro award.

Upon his return to the US, Diffrient was hired by one of the founding fathers of American industrial design, the renowned Henry Dreyfuss.  He moved to Pasadena for 14 years where he worked with clients such as Lockheed Aircraft Company an experience that introduced him to other aircraft design projects that continued throughout most of his career such as Gates Learjet and American Airlines’ entire corporate design program.   While with Henry Dreyfuss, Diffrient worked on a wide range of products that include, but is not limited to, phones for Bell telephone Laboratories, farm equipment for John Deere & Company, cameras for Polaroid Corporation (including the famed SX-70) and Singer Sewing Machines.  In addition, he coauthored ergonomic reference material known as “Humanscale” that was designed with a clever, interactive format and was published by MIT Press.  While in Pasadena, he was an assistant professor in residence at UCLA for 8 years.  In addition, he began to serve as a board member of the International Design Conference in Aspen where he ran design conferences.  The topic of the conference he chaired was later published as a book by Walker Art Center entitled “Dimensions of Experience”; a subject that has become enormously important when designing present day digital products.

As a senior partner with Henry Dreyfuss Associates, Diffrient moved to New York City in 1975 where he started to design his first office chairs for Knoll International.   This move began the next chapter in his life.  He soon married Helena Hernmarck, then left Henry Dreyfuss Associates and moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1981.  He then opened Niels Diffrient Product Design where he worked side by side with Helena Hernmarck’s tapestry studio for the remainder of his life.

During his Ridgefield years, he became the most prolific and received the greatest recognition.  In parallel to being a Visiting Critic at Yale University School of Architecture for 2 years, he served as Chief Corporate Design Consultant for Texas Instruments, Consultant to Philips Co., and Amtrak as well as designing advanced office furniture for Sunar Hauserman, Howe Furniture Corporation and Humanscale.

His succession of chairs – Knoll’s office seating, Sunar Hauserman’s Jefferson Chair, Humanscale’s Freedom, Liberty, and World chairs – have won numerous international prizes.

Diffrient has served many professional activities throughout his career.  He has been given 19 honorary awards that include the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design, the National Design Awards, Smithsonian-Cooper Hewitt Museum, multiple Honorary Doctorates, and the Honorary Royal Designer for Industry and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, London.  He has been included in multiple international design exhibitions and his products have won over 65 international design awards.  Diffrient has earned 57 patents that are issued for furniture, seating, and mechanical systems with several pending for utility and design.

His approach to design runs counter to the superficial, artistic approach that creates form for the sake of form.  His approach to design is an intelligent approach based on a few steps – develop research in order to better understand the needs of people, engineer design solutions to fit people, refine form based on the best design performance that suites a broad range of people’s needs.

Last fall, he self-published his autobiography, “Confessions of a Generalist,” that traces his modest beginnings then throughout his illustrious career that is full of wide ranging experiences that helped him convert from a specialist to a generalist.  Although Diffrient took his work seriously and worked almost nonstop, anyone who has met him was always deeply impressed with his approachable character.  In the words of a friend, David Brown, “He was warm, thoughtful, slightly mischievous, and generous.  What better memory could there be for a designer’s legacy – a life well lived; a world changed for the better by a designer’s acute sense of observation, creativity, intelligence, persistence, and even a bit of showmanship.”

He is survived by his wife, Helena Hernmarck, the internationally known tapestry artist, and three children: Scott and his partner Florence Sohn, Julie and her husband Nigel Miller, Emily and his brother Roy Diffrient and his sister Betty Herring.

A private memorial will be held.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests gifts to Cranbrook Academy of Art.  These may be sent to:

Niels Diffrient Memorial Fund
Cranbrook Academy of Art
39221 Woodward Avenue, PO Box 801
Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 48303-0801
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