Monday, 30 April 2012

Considering Design at the Humanscale

(Diffrient World Chair)

This article was first published in Architecture Ireland #262

A highly technical product with a close relationship to everyday life and the human body, few objects need to balance form and function and adhere to ergonomics like the office chair. A market long dominated by Hermann Miller and Knoll, the last decade or so has seen the rise a new player called Humanscale, providing us with task furniture with the most comfort using the least amount of materials and fuss. And what is Humanscale’s secret? A passion for performance, comfort and ease of use, and a designer called Niels Diffrient. Diffrient, now in his eighties and still designing, has developed three of Humanscale’s biggest success stories – the Freedom, Liberty and Diffrient World chairs. I spoke to Niels about his process and principles, and how important it is to provide good design solutions for the workplace.

What is it that sparked your interest firstly in design and secondly in task furniture?
I elected to study aeronautical engineering in school. A fellow student told me there were more girls in art, so I changed to art which led to design. During my college years, I worked for Eero Saarinen on a chair while studying design and architecture at Cranbrook Academy.

Irish architect Kevin Roche also spent some of his formative years working in with Eero Saarinen. Can you tell me a little about that?
Working with Saarinen on his furniture designs, my drawing board was next to that of Kevin Roche. This was 1949-1953. We have been friends ever since.

Can you talk a little about the starting point you take for a design? Does the last design inform the next, does one chair lead from another?
Good design, like most creative efforts, builds on the past. It is essential to learn from past failures as well as successes. Business and government often seem oblivious to this fundamental rule. Currently, our society is fixated on short-term gain at the expense of long-term intelligence.

What design of yours are you proudest of?
All of them and none of them. I am currently working on one which builds on the past and I take pride in making each a degree better than the last.

(Freedom Family. All images courtesy of Humanscale)

Can you talk a little about the importance of sustainability in your work?
The key to sustainability is efficiency. A design should use less material and energy for the most useful result. There is too much wasteful, style-driven design that doesn’t last. No amount of recycling will equal using less in the first place.

Do you see a difference between today's young designers and older generations? Has the design process or the industry changed?
The people are the same; their circumstances are different. From a design standpoint, the sacrifice of the hand/mind link being replaced by the digital processor is the most threatening. The gains to be had by computer programmes should only be employed after establishing an objective through intimate personal process.

What are you working on now?
I only work on things, and with those people, that I feel good about. Currently it is largely for improving the experience for people in office work. This is the largest proportion of workers in our society. The Humanscale company is also dedicated to the same goal so this produces mutual satisfaction.