Sweeping changes

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."

He replaced the bag, thinking it was full, but the new bag didn't improve things. He tore the sorry sack apart and found that dust was blocking air from entering it.

What, he wondered, could trap dirt instead of a bag, a mainstay of suction vacuums since 1908 -- and an approach Dyson likens to "an electric fan and a pillowcase on a stick"?

The answer came to him when he saw a 30-foot-tall cyclone sucking bad air out of a sawmill. It was like a tornado at the flip of a switch. If only he could shrink the cyclone down to something that could glide around a floor.

Five years, hundreds of blind alleys and more than 5,000 prototypes later, he came up with a working model that didn't clog or lose suction. "It's simply all about airflow," he said.

Air is sucked inside the main cylinder, and cyclones, acting like hyperactive salad spinners, separate the dirt from it, down to the smallest particle of cigarette smoke. Debris is tossed against the walls of the collection bin, where it's trapped.

While testing his device, Dyson built a transparent bin so he could watch how everything worked, then decided he liked it that way. It not only showed the product in action but made it easy for users to see when it was time to empty it.

"Style develops as the engineering develops," said Dyson, who has seen competitors adopt his bagless approach but not his cyclone technology.

In his talks, he takes his machine apart to show off its smart engineering -- the cable-winder hose, curved motor, angled cleaner head. Until all that's left is the injection-molded gray plastic skeleton.

"We knew by the way he walked us through his invention that he went deep into it to understand what it should do before he could advance it," said Art Center President Richard Koshalek, who witnessed an onstage autopsy.

"Dyson is a designer with a higher seriousness of purpose than to just supply a product," he said. "He has the conviction to search for an original solution, and he's able to do this because he's singular. He doesn't have to go through a bureaucracy."

Before he even sold his first vacuum in the U.K. in 1993, Dyson decided the way to set it apart from the omnipresent Electroluxes and tony Mieles was to start with the design community. So he wheeled his invention to art schools and found that prestigious museums -- such as Paris' Georges Pompidou Center and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art -- wanted one for their collections.

He kept a tight grip on his advertising as well, refusing to hire an outside agency with "some ponytailed plonker trying to be witty about something he doesn't understand," he writes.

When he couldn't afford it, he bought airtime on British TV. Small print ads, he believed, would make people think he was small, and he would stay that way forever. The commercials were straightforward: Show the product and explain the bag-free difference. One 30-second spot followed an earnest mime as he searched every crevice of the vacuum to find where he should put the bag. Finally he gave up, hiding it under the wheels.

Within two years, something out of the ordinary happened: Dyson was outselling his competitors 5 to 1 in the U.K. And not just the design cognoscenti were buying. People who were paying twice as much for his vacuum, his research showed, earned less than those buying competing brands.

To marketing experts back then, none of this added up. A costly, unusual-looking product with powerful competition being used at 10 Downing Street and in tract homes in Tokyo? To others, who understand that most people appreciate good design, it made sense.

"Consumers want everyday objects to be beautiful and efficient," said Joseph Rosa, architecture and design curator at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, where an earlier version of the DC07 is in the permanent collection. "And Dyson is showing the average man and woman that his translucent, glowing vacuum can make cleaning a pleasurable act."

Stylish dirt collection

At the A+D Museum, director Elizabeth Martin was enjoying the full house. She knew it was a coup to get Dyson for the night; he's heading a company that brings in $350 million a year and that employs hundreds of engineers and scientists who come up with new spins on everyday appliances (the latest is a front-loading washing machine that kneads clothes). And as the chairman of London's Design Museum, he lectures at schools on using hands and brains to solve problems.

"The public takes for granted that big ideas come from big companies, so it is always interesting to find the genesis of an idea," said Martin.

At the event, a woman in a St. John Knits dress sidled up to Dyson and his machine. After complaining that vacuuming is a pain, so she just refuses to do it, she looked at the DC07 and wondered: "How well does it suck?"

Dyson, who can talk endlessly about the power of cyclones and centrifugal force, chose to keep his answers short: "It never stops sucking."

"Will the case crack?"

He picked up the 20-pound vacuum, which is made from the same ABS plastic and polycarbonate materials used in crash helmets, and banged it against a concrete column. "No." The woman flinched but didn't move away.

"Where does the dirt go if it doesn't have a bag?"

He pulled a trigger on the collection bin and a trapdoor popped open, dropping a mound of dirt near the woman's spotless pumps. They both looked down and nodded.

Dirt, perhaps like the U.S. market, can be conquered with style.

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