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Henry Leutwyler
Niels Diffrient, and Freedom Chair by Humanscale.

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A Machine for Sitting

Interview by PILAR VILADAS

Published: November 30, 2003

Q In your 50 years as a designer, what have you wanted to accomplish?

It's my intent to make design a more consequential endeavor, not a decorative endeavor. I decided the best field to work in would be commercial furniture. Henry Dreyfuss introduced me to ''human-factors engineering'' in 1955 -- it's now called ergonomics. We worked on making the machines fit people. I had worked in Eero Saarinen's office on furniture. I learned a lot from Eero. We didn't know a lot about ergonomics then. We learned it, pardon the pun, by the seat of our pants.


For something as technical as ergonomics, where does the inspiration come from?

The nature of inspiration includes the understanding of all the factors necessary to design. It's like a physicist trying to bring together a comprehensive theory of the universe. You can't leave anything out. Academics in human-factors engineering are only interested in the data. I'm looking to find out how the data may be used to improve a situation. Why would you design something if it didn't improve the human condition?

How does this apply to the Freedom Chair, one of the designs you're most known for?

The problem with many ergonomically designed office chairs is they have all these knobs and levers -- to adjust the seat height, recline of the backrest, height of the armrests, the headrest and so on. But most people never use them. The things that this chair does to address that problem are: When you recline, you don't have to adjust the chair -- it adapts to your body weight. When you decide that the armrests are not where you want them to be, you grab one or both arms and move them up or down. They're coordinated, so if you pull one up, the other follows.

What's an example of an everyday object that you think is well designed?

One of my favorites is the umbrella. I also like the titanium-and-carbon-fiber tennis rackets. They're light, strong and never warp. The umbrella, the bicycle, the pencil, the tennis racket -- these are immensely efficient. The Post-it note -- most of us take it for granted, but it's a design. The F-16 fighter jet -- it's a beautiful object that does its job.

What about things that don't work?

The New York City taxicab is one of the worst-adapted products for its purpose. Also, those entrancing, simple chairs that people love to look at. A good deal of the Bauhaus falls into that category of what I call functional style. I'm a sucker for this stuff, too, like everyone else -- I have Breuer and Mies bent-tube furniture in my living room, but I hardly ever sit in them. I sit in a comfortable chair and look at them. I saw a photo of Ettore Sottsass, who designs all this way-out stuff, in his studio. That's not design to be used. I have tremendous respect for Ettore because his competence at form-giving is extraordinary. So is Michael Graves's, and so is Philippe Starck's. That's their strength. You can't blame them -- they look upon themselves as poets and artists. Sottsass did things for Olivetti -- typewriters, adding machines. When someone of his caliber moves into accepting constraints of performance and function, he does extraordinary design.

Do you agree with the notion that people are more savvy about design these days?

Yes, with qualifiers. There is a class of person who is educated enough and sensitive to elements of aesthetic refinement. You could almost directly design for these people because they're discriminating. But the whole nature of my profession is design for the masses. They're available to certain things -- price, availability, distribution, functionality. If it does something obviously better, they'll buy it. You want to use function as a door-opener. After that, it would be nice if the product were well styled.

Is there anything you haven't designed but would like to?

Clothing. I carry a pocketknife, and when I sit down, it slides out of my pocket. If men's trousers had just a little ''step'' in the pocket, things wouldn't slide out. It could be a major marketing advantage to address functional issues in clothing.

Save 50% off home delivery of The Times

.When the Object Is the Objective (November 23, 2003) 
.CURRENTS: FURNISHINGS; Bright Colors For Beds to Wear  (January 4, 2001) 
.CURRENTS: BASKETS; And They're Waterproof, Too  (September 2, 1999) 
.CURRENTS: FURNISHINGS; White-on-White Eclecticism Means a Wolf in the House  (July 29, 1999) 
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