Forget Twister. Now you can have a clone in your own home – Dyson‘s Dual Cyclone to be exact, a 900mph vortex of air that swirls at the heart of a vacuum cleaner that has become the British manufacturing success of the 1990s.
The product’s claim to fame is that it has no bag. The vortex sucks air and dirt in such a way that they can be separated, the air sent back to the room, the dirt to a plastic bucket. From bag to bucket is not exactly progress. The real gain is that the machine carries on sucking at full power without becoming clogged. In a field scarcely renowned for innovation the Dual Cyclone sells more than 30,000 units a month at £200 a time.
But who is this Dyson? Who, these days, has the nerve to put his own name to a product? The norm is to use somebody else’s – the “Pammy” Virgin Cola bottle is about our level now. Even Bentone or Pininfarina cars speak of branding more than authorship. The patronymic evokes a very 19th-century inventiveness – Stephenson’s Rocket, Singer’s sewing machine, Dyson’s Cyclone. James Dyson admires Isambard Kingdom Brunel, but belies the gruff stove-pipe and sideburns stereotype of these Victorian heroes. Confusingly, he looks more designer than inventor – no row of coloured pens clutters the pocket of his Yamamoto jacket. With his seat near Bath and his factory in Malmesbury, Dyson’s whole manner is patrician, almost detached, his tenacity cloaked in charming affability.
There is no museum of British innovation and manufacture. So Dyson’s story is told at the Design Museum. This is very slightly odd, for while other designers have nothing but admiration for Dyson’s achievement, they don’t much like the look of his product. This does not surprise Dyson. He is inclined to dismiss many designers as mere stylists, incapable of creating new products.
Styling is what designers do to differentiate a product from its competitors. The conventions tend to be narrow. The inspiration for vacuum cleaners has long been the automobile; today’s Hoovers take their cue from sports cars, especially the recent revivalist models devised by Japanese stylists looking at English and Italian classics through the prism of Californian style.
Dyson needed to show that his product was genuinely different from these run-abouts. As Dr Strangelove observed of the Doomsday machine, there is no point in possessing superior technology unless people know about it. So the Cyclone expresses its turbulent soul with enough ribs and fins to conjure a Thunderbird the fictional spacecraft, this time, not the car. A newer, compact model has the coiled agility of a Sumo wrestler.
The misgivings of other designers can only be multiplied by Dyson’s latest preoccupation: not innovation, but brave new colour ways. This month sees the launch of a snow-white edition to celebrate Ranulph Fiennes’ lone Antarctic expedition (wonderfully clean there, of course), sponsored by Dyson to raise money for breast cancer research. The so-called De Stijl model (though not in the authentic colours that Rietveld and Mondrian would recognise) marks the show at the Design Museum. It’s a long way from Brunel.
Dyson may be doing himself a greater disservice. As consumers, we are dubious about highly styled products at the best of times. In the conservative domestic appliance market Dyson’s intervention seems wilfully eccentric. Business leaders look on, askance. Sir Anthony Cleaver, who chaired the admired Tomorrow’s Company inquiry for the Royal Society of Arts, felt able to dismiss the Dual cyclone as a niche “designer” object solely because of the way it looked. If only he had seen the equally colourful sales graphs – Dyson’s line questing upward, while Hoover and Electrolux sink in the dust.
Others may have their prejudices. Dyson’s own problems are of a different order. The British market can only absorb 30,000 Cyclones a month for so long. He must open up export markets and begin to think of new products. The paradigm shift he has already achieved with vacuum cleaners, and, in a previous life, with the Balbarrow (whose wheel is a ball that sinks less readily into the mire), he must seek to achieve once more. Items to fall under Dyson’s critical gaze include lawnmowers, wheelchairs, dishwashers and ironing boards. These are not articles for which you might have thought there was a paradigm to be shifted, but it is in the nature of Dyson’s inventiveness to prove you completely wrong.