Confessions of a Generalist

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Confessions of a Generalist

Niels Diffrient


  • A Mississippi farm life during the great Depression
  • School years in Detroit’s vital age
  • Education in art, architecture and design
  • Working with and learning from Eero Saarinen
  • Getting Buckminster Fuller his first big job
  • Designing, and other pleasures, in Italy
  • Experiences as designer, partner and owner of the Henry Dreyfuss Office
  • Teaching, publishing, and chairing conferences
  • Creating a new kind of business—inventing, engineering and developing design for ergonomic office furniture
  • Designing human experience through new and unique methods
  • Great generalists and their contributions to society

No human accomplishment is separate from the life which nurtured it. Character is destiny, and that is why I start with my roots and progress through pertinent parts of my life.

Cranbrook was one of the greatest blessings of my life. I had, by a mysterious process,  been provided an intrinsic work program that was already resident in my sub-conscience and ready to be turned loose and acted upon.

In the summer of 1949 I started working for Eero. I became, I think, the eighth employee. My work on the Knoll chair was mostly involving form studies. It was clear that Eero had studied sculpture and we both enjoyed refining the shape that was unique to the chair.

Reference books on human factors (ergonomics) are thick, dense, and filled with jargon, as though the authors had forgotten to apply the objectives of the subject to their own work. My publication “Humanscale” reversed that.

The agent for transferring specialized and academic knowledge into my deeper comprehension
was to use drawing as the vehicle of re-interpretation. I did not want to memorize the knowledge for later—I wanted to absorb it in a form that would integrate into my subconscious motivations.

The contour and composition of the body is the object and gravity is the force and where the two meet is the interface that determines comfort. The designer is often the only one dealing with the intangible and ambiguous aspects of human experience. The designer is just about the only source of aesthetics in the creation of our artificial environment.

Defining the user’s experience through ergonomic testing provides the direction for developing both the engineering as well as the final form and aesthetic effect.

My approach is to make the whole chair the mechanism itself. All the defining elements that constitute the chair’s physical presence play a role in the operational mechanism, which is, in essence, spread throughout the product; there is no need for a separate box of machinery hidden under the seat.

Our studio is the equivalent of the boat to the sailor, the concert hall to the musician, the game field to the athlete; in other words, our inanimate partner in all our endeavors.

This book is available for purchase.

Niel Diffrient is a fellow of IDSA.