Eight Easy Pieces

Niels Diffrient pares down the office chair for Humanscale.

Final chairs

A decade ago, when Niels Diffrient began work on a radically refined ergonomic office chair, the dot-com economy was still going strong: Americans were cash-rich, in love with technological frou-frou, and mostly ignoring the environmental implications of their lifestyles and work habits. Now that his chair is finally ready for the market, Diffrient, 80, proves he possesses not just the pragmatic ingenuity of one of the world’s top industrial designers (which he is), but also a virtue he never bargained for: perfect timing. Our cultural values have shifted, but the Diffrient Work Chair for Humanscale remains what its inventor hoped it would be: the lightest, simplest, and (at a projected list price of $650 when it launches this spring) most affordable reclining task chair of its quality, or so its manufacturer claims. “I’m looking at it as a world chair,” Diffrient says, speaking from the depths of the current recession, in his studio on the western edge of Connecticut.

The Diffrient chair is less than 25 pounds—half the weight of comparable task chairs—and it’s made of only eight major components (including a gas cylinder to change seat height, but not including about a dozen small parts and 20 or so fasteners to complete the assembly). That’s less than one-third the number of parts of similar products, Humanscale notes. The user’s weight automatically transfers a proportionate force for recline, eliminating the need for adjustment and the usual spring mechanism; leaning back ramps the seat upward and forward to achieve the appropriate upright or reclined position. A virtual lock holds position without need of a manual control. As a result of that simple action, this is the “only full ergonomic task chair that doesn’t have a box of mechanism under the seat,” Diffrient says. “It’s all clean and smooth underneath.” The chair features only two manual controls, for adjusting seat height and depth.

Minimal parts and low weight offer environmental advantages, but not the only ones: The main component of the Diffrient chair’s frame is fiberglass-reinforced plastic, and the sitting surfaces may be either a proprietary mesh or elastomer. (The elastomer is low-cost, easy to clean, antimicrobial, and conducive to a range of sumptuous colors, including grape.) Diffrient says that though all materials in the chair may be recycled, it may be more efficient to refurbish worn chairs and return them to their owners; Humanscale is considering such a program. The company is also launching factories throughout the world to produce the chair for local markets, saving the expense and environmental stress of shipping long distances.

Chair prototypes 

The Diffrient chair is suitable for global distribution because it comfortably supports 95 percent of body types, not just beefy Americans. Its inventor, a pioneer in the study of human factors, believes a body in recline is a happy body. In fact, Diffrient preaches, “The best chair is a bed.” Though he considered a forward tilt mechanism in early Diffrient chair prototypes, he chose not to have one in the end because of the added cost and complexity. Besides, he says, the “mechanism encourages the common but undesirable position of people straining to operate the computer.” Recognizing the need for users to lean forward occasionally, however, he banished the hard forward cross bar, which causes under-thigh pressure. The chair can be specified with fixed-position armrests, adjustable armrests, or no armrests.

Ultimately, the new chair is dedicated to efficiency, a quality its inventor has pursued throughout his storied career. Diffrient quotes Buckminster Fuller on the view that weight and materials are the measures, adding, “I remember Bucky saying architects are the scum of the earth because they don’t even know what their buildings weigh.” But Diffrient believes designers should expand the definition of efficiency to incorporate human experience, finding the shortest route to the greatest physical and emotional comfort. At least, it’s something to lean back and think about.

Julie Lasky is the editor-in-chief of I.D.

Photography by Michael Roberto