Designers
Liberty ergonomic task chair

Niels Diffrient

Location: Ridgefield, Connecticut
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How do you design a chair that is a “verifiable performer, visually compelling,” and a product in which anyone of any size can be comfortable? Niels Diffrient has accomplished his lifelong goal with the Liberty chair. Since his years as an associate and partner at Henry Dreyfuss Associates, beginning in 1955, Diffrient has been an engineer for the human body—studying and documenting how it responds and adapts to particular activities, from reading and typing to stretching and relaxing. The data he collected while at Dreyfuss were used for the pivotal series Humanscale (three volumes: 1,2,3; 4,5,6; and 7,8,9), published in 1974 and 1981, archetypal manuals for anyone interested or involved in the design profession. Containing specific guidelines for furniture—the chair was featured in the first issue—Humanscale carefully documented and dissected the variable functions and requirements of furniture design.

The Liberty chair, designed for Humanscale, a leading manufacturer of ergonomic products, is in many ways a culmination of this research. The revolutionary counter-balance system automatically senses the weight of the sitter and adjusts the recline tension accordingly. No controls are necessary, and there are no distracting and inessential levers and knobs that require an instruction manual to operate.

Diffrient had initially avoided designing a mesh chair due to the inherent difficulties in forming the compound curvatures needed for good back support; most mesh chairs need auxiliary lumbar devices to provide the missing support. Diffrient rectified this by assembling three textile panels on a contoured support frame—the same way textiles are cut to fit the body in clothing. Since a non-stretch textile is used, contours do not deform under load, and displace appropriately to accommodate users of various sizes. Working closely with Diffrient, Elizabeth Whelan created a variety of high-performance mesh designs to answer the required specifications of translucency, breathability, and a uniquely attractive appearance.

Many architects and designers have taken up the challenge to design the perfect task or work chair, and although they may have visual appeal, most of the resulting chairs are only somewhat comfortable, and complicated to use. But comfort is Diffrient’s first priority, with aesthetics an integral consideration at every step. As he explains, “My work since 1981 has been an attempt to identify and solve real problems with refinement and elegance. I have chosen furniture, seating in particular, for this effort because it has a history of design and refinement on which to build, and it is in widespread use, yet not of great technical complexity so that the entire design can be within my control.”