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Eight Easy Pieces

Niels Diffrient pares down the office chair for Humanscale.

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.

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