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Sweeping changes

James Dyson, inventor of the cyclonic vacuum, wants to revolutionize invention itself.

June 16, 2003|Janet Eastman | Times Staff Writer

The vacuum-cleaner pitchman was wowing his audience at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena on a recent Thursday night. He'd done the same the night before at the A+D Museum in downtown Los Angeles, where he talked about the need for constant suction as he vroomed his missile-shaped machine around pointed Pradas and polished Guccis.

At the college he was pelted with questions -- "Where's the bag?" -- and at the museum he was bombarded by intimate confessions -- "I would rather do anything than vacuum." He listened, arms relaxed across his soft denim shirt. He had heard it all before. And he would hear it again, now that he's introducing his $400 invention to the United States after sweeping the market in Britain, Europe and Japan.

Many people, it seems, want a personal demonstration by the stubborn British inventor who leveraged his family's farmhouse to make a bagless vacuum cleaner that in turn made him a billionaire and the idol of design-minded dreamers.

Inside, the Dyson DC07 relies on cyclones and centrifugal force instead of fans and bags. Outside, the original submarine-yellow upright -- now available in red and purple -- looks more like an educational toy with all of its spiraling working parts exposed. And the marketing campaign behind it is just as elegantly engineered.

To set his vacuum apart from the Hoovers, Royals and Eurekas, James Dyson is taking an unconventional route. He's not showing it off at Best Buy stores or Sears, where the vacuum is sold, but in design school auditoriums and at museums, where applause is long for a smart product and its creator.

Dyson wants to be seen in the same way as Philippe Starck and Michael Graves, who have turned their energies to jazzing up household must-haves for the masses.

The soft-spoken iconoclast moves easily in such circles. He attended the Royal College of Art in London in the late 1960s, studying architecture, furniture and other practical areas in which "something is created out of nothing."

He made a name for himself as an industrial designer in the mid-'70s by coming up with the Sea Truck, which moves heavy cargo at high speed across water, and by reinventing the wheelbarrow, using a fat pneumatic balloon instead of a wheel that sinks in soft soil. Those inventions brought in millions ... for others. Then the tinkerer-turned-businessman took over.

Today, in a manner he calls "megalomaniacal," Dyson owns the company that has stamped his name on 10 million uprights and canisters. He watches over its research, manufacturing and marketing, down to the design of the print ads that began running in the March issues of glossy shelter magazines in this country. And he's the one who leaves his family in England to travel the world, explaining why design matters.

Standing at the edge of Art Center's auditorium stage, Dyson talked without notes about the lonely act of inventing, the maddening frustration of keeping "bloodsucking corporate sharks" from stealing a little guy's profitable idea, and the indescribable joy of proving pessimists wrong.

"Creativity is a rare commodity, and designers are far too modest and unassuming," he told the students, who gulped every word. "If you don't have control, you have to defer to others. Innovation requires builders, not bean-counters."

"He's inspiring," said Mike Shaub as he and other students huddled in front of Dyson's machine after the hourlong lecture. "He put out a better product and he charges a lot for it. He didn't compromise its design or function to sell it cheaper, which is what we idealists fear we'll have to do in the real world."

A rebellious worldview

James Dyson is a nonconformist who never wears a suit, demands that his staff think illogically and hangs out with his product designers more often than with executives in his British headquarters. There, no walls divide the departments, and every new employee puts together a vacuum on the first day to take home and use.

His philosophy is outlined in what he calls his "anti-business" book, "Against the Odds" (Texere, 2003), in which he declares that memos are only used to pass the buck, comfortable chairs are really important for creativity and his way of doing business "wouldn't count for diddly" if the vacuum weren't revolutionary.

"We come to work dressed as people at home would because unlike the hard-dealing businessmen that I find repelling, we don't take an us-versus-them approach," said Dyson. "It's not just about engineering but considering the needs of the user."

It all started at Dyson's home in Bathford, England, with the needs of one user. In 1978, the 31-year-old family man was trying to clean up. He pushed a clunky vacuum over the carpet, but it didn't do much more than leave sweeping marks. "I could do a better job by bending over and picking up the dirt, dog hair and gubbins with my hand," he recalled.

Not only was it a worthless cleaning machine, but it let out air that smelled of "foul hot motor and stale dog."

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