Shopping: Reinventing the vacuum... and cleaning up

Marcus Field meets James Dyson, whose new-look vacuum cleaners became an overnight success, eventually
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Indy Lifestyle Online
James Dyson is a vacuum cleaner junkie. "I'm totally fascinated by them," says the inventor of the Dual Cyclone and its latest incarnation, the Dyson Absolute, which is launched this month. Boyishly handsome, 48 and preppily dressed in blue linen shirt and chinos, he looks nothing like the stereotypical inventor. Today, a camera crew from the TV show Millionaires has come to film him at work at his open-plan, modern and, naturally, spotless offices just outside Malmesbury, Wiltshire. As he directs the pounds 100m-a-year, 350-staff operation that is Dyson Appliances, he makes running a business empire look easy.

It is all the more impressive when you reflect that he has not had long to practice. Dyson's distinctive yellow and grey vacuum cleaner - the one with the clear plastic middle and no bag - first came on the market in Britain in 1993. It marked the beginning of a meteoric rise and the end of a long struggle.

After training in interior and product design at the Royal College of Art in the late Sixties, Dyson worked first on the development of a high- speed landing craft and then on the Ballbarrow wheelarrow, his first popular success. The idea for the Dual Cyclone came in 1979 and was inspired by a device he had created to clean the air in the factory.

Whereas ordinary vacuum cleaners use motor suction to draw up particles of dirt, the Dual Cyclone is based on the ingenious creation of two mini twisters inside a plastic casing. These circulate air at over 900mph and so draw out dirt particles by centrifugal force. The dirt then accumulates inside the clear tank which, curiously, is part of the appeal. "The brutal machine-like aesthetic is deliberate," says Dyson, "to make it look the business."

Because the Dual Cyclone relies on this novel system for drawing in air, rather than the conventional, easily clogged filtering technology, it can claim to deliver 100 per cent suction, 100 per cent of the time. A million sales a year bear witness to its success, and it is now Britain's best-selling model; but the conservative nature of British industry nearly stopped it happening at all.

Although Dyson had prototypes of his cleaner by the mid-Eighties, he was only able to sell the rights to manufacturers in Japan and the US. British companies remained unconvinced. "People said it's not going to sell because it looks different. Why don't you make it look like a Hoover or an Electrolux? So I was finally goaded into making it myself," he says.

But financing the operation was a problem and Dyson received little support from accountants or banks. "'You're a designer, what do you know about manufacturing?' was their response," he remembers. "The trouble is money people don't understand the value of an idea or of technology. It's something they can't quantify. The tragedy is that designers begin to undervalue themselves."

Dyson was finally able to prove himself in 1992 when he won a legal case against a US company for infringement of copyright and was able to set up a factory using the proceeds. "At that time nobody sold a vacuum cleaner over pounds 100," he says. "We priced ours at pounds 200." And, he reminds us, this was not aimed at the designer market. "At first it was only sold in Littlewoods, Curry's and Comet. We had to teach them how they could sell a high-price product in high volume. And one that looked and worked differently."

The cleaner was cannily sold on the one thing it didn't have: a bag. Although other manufacturers were quick to produce new models with top- notch price tags, they couldn't compete with the technology. "We marketed it in a serious way," says Dyson. "It is counterproductive to make a joke of things. People don't want to be treated as stupid. They understand the way things are presented to them on Tomorrow's World." Success was quick and Dyson has tripled his turnover every year since. Over 5,000 cleaners a day - including a recently launched cylinder version - now come off his clean, quiet production line and the factory is soon to be extended to triple its size.

Next month, Dyson's achievement will be recognised in the form of an exhibition of his work at the Design Museum. At the same time, he is launching a limited edition De Stijl version of the Dual Cyclone in Rietveld red and purple. Other special editions are also planned. And after that? Dyson is giving nothing away, but behind a high screen in his office, a group of freshly-picked design graduates is beavering away on new ideas. Whatever the company does next, though, is sure to be ambitious. When asked by American design magazine ID what his hopes were for the year 2000, Dyson replied: "World domination of domestic appliances."

Dyson Appliances Ltd 01666-827 200; Doing a Dyson! Design Museum, London, 16 October to 16 February 1997. Marcus Field is Deputy Editor of Blueprint magazine.

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