Shopping: The thing about... Vacuum cleaners

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Thomas the Tank engine is a bit of a bore, but it is not difficult to believe that a steam locomotive, the most anthropomorphic of all machines, has a personality and might just be able to talk to children when adults are not looking. But, Henry the vacuum cleaner? There must be limits on our childish desire to turn every machine into a human character. Let's face it, vacuum cleaners are very useful, but not exactly a boy or girl's best friend.

If anything, vacuum cleaners were more household demons than pets. The first I can remember was streamlined in a Raymond Loewy kind of way, made a more hellish noise than the souls of the damned, and set the cats spitting, whilst the dogs saw it as a violent intruder that needed a good biting. The next was an Electrolux that lasted until well after I left home.

Since then, I have thought very little about vacuum cleaners. I like to live in homes with floorboards, stone, tiled or granite floors, where a broom and brush and pan will do the work of a vacuum cleaner.

Despite its great age - it dates from around the turn of the century - the electric vacuum cleaner has advanced only very slowly in terms of design and efficiency. For the most part, it's still far too noisy, whilst many blow dust and other particles around the home. Far too many are designed so that as you pull them along, they crash into furniture and get stuck in the jambs of doors. They insist on swallowing objects too big for their serpentine throats. And, for the most part, they come with far too many arcane accessories and ineffable extras.

In fact, the best cleaners are those we never see advertised in consumer magazines or sold in the high street. These are industrial vacuum cleaners: rugged, simple aluminium cylinders, or bells, that trundle along on proper wheels and will guzzle up anything from builders' rubble to the dog's collection of Bonio fragments. Of course, these powerful and brutally functional machines will also make quick work of hamsters and gerbils attempting to cross their paths. If they were to be given names, industrial vacuum cleaners would certainly not be called Henry. No, Pol Pot, Stalin or Pinochet would be more appropriate: these are domestic Year Zero machines, cleansing everything animate or inanimate in their way.

Despite their ruggedness and efficiency, industrial cleaners appear to have a limited appeal to householders, who really do seem to care about the styling of their vacuum cleaners. The idea of a fashionable vacuum cleaner seems almost absurd, and yet, this is precisely what James Dyson, designer and inventor, has given the world. Dyson cleaners are fine machines and a stylish compromise between the invincible industrial cleaner and the tricky, baggy cleaners that still dominate most domestic appliance showrooms. Let's hope James Dyson is not tempted to start naming his cleaners. Can you imagine a vacuum cleaner called Rosie or Lily?

Jonathan Glancey

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