It has smooth curves, a compact body, luminescent skin and lots of power.
It’s neither a supermodel nor a sports car.
It’s a vacuum cleaner.
“Vacuums used to be sold by a salesman dumping dirt on the carpet,” said David Kelley, professor of product design at Stanford University. “Then someone decided that this sleepy object could make users feel good and be a reflection of our self-image.”
Vacuums now come in brilliant colors, cool metallic finishes and clear acrylics that proudly show off advanced engineering. They’ve been included in exhibitions at prominent modern museums.
They even have PR agents.
“We set a stage for a vacuum to be seen as a luxury product,” said Lori Dolnick of Thacker & Frank Communications in New Jersey, which handles the image of the vacuum made by Miele Inc., a German appliance company founded in 1899.
In 1984, the company introduced a sealed canister model that sucked up and held onto even microscopic dust mites. Now with a top vacuum power of 141 cubic feet of air per minute, or CFM, it can inhale just about anything that’s hiding out in the carpet and padding, all the way down to the slab.
But it was Miele’s arresting appearance -- it looked like a hard-shelled beetle and came in bright, candy-toned colors -- that took vacuums out of the closet and onto the photo shoots of decor magazines.
“When we’re in Elle Decor, Metropolitan Home or House & Garden, they’re not talking about performance or filtration,” said Dolnick. “We get featured in those magazines because we’re cool looking.”
Dolnick does not mind adding that Miele canister vacuums, which now come with HEPA filters, are used to clean the Oval Office.
Well, if it’s good enough for the presidential home, it might be just what I need to replace my 15-year-old Hoover Elite. That upright vacuum, which was the bottom of the Hoover line when I bought it, sucks up a whopping 20 CFM, according to one vacuum salesman who dismissed it as old-fashioned as a dial telephone.
A friend brought her Miele over to my house for a comparison test. First, I ran the old Elite over the living room carpet and then she went over the same section with her machine.
We opened the Miele and found in its bag and filter a disgusting amount of dirt and dust that my vacuum had missed.
“It’s the difference between a BMW and a bicycle,” said an eager salesman at Best Vacuum & Janitorial Store in Santa Ana, where I went to further examine modern vacuums.
The store had canister Mieles starting at about $200 on up to nearly $1,000 for a top-of-the-line aluminum model.
I had never used a canister before -- they’re popular in Europe, while the United States market is dominated by uprights. Canisters are great for reaching under couches and beds, they sit nicely on stairs and they don’t mind being pulled by the hose. They’re designed to follow like a puppy.
The Miele was quieter and better looking than other, less-expensive canisters I eventually tried. It also didn’t flip over, even when I quickly changed directions.
But what I didn’t like about canisters is that they tend to take up more space in a closet, and, well, my mom always used an upright.
I’m not the only one for which an old-fashioned vacuum is a symbol of an ordered home. “We hear from people who don’t want to get rid of a vacuum they’ve had for 60 years because they see it as a family helper,” said Jackie Love, a spokeswoman for the Ohio-based Hoover Co. that produced the first uprights in 1908. “They use it, depend on it, interact with it.”
Hoover has come a long way from its first vacuum devised from an electric fan, tin soapbox, pillowcase and broom handle. Its current premium upright line is WindTunnel, which includes models that sell from about $200 to $450.
The upper-end WindTunnels are self-propelled -- you just guide them around a room. But that’s not always an advantage. Invariably, there are some situations where you have to lift and carry the machine, whether it’s when you are going up steps or putting it away, and the self-propelled mechanism makes these models relatively heavy. They also are louder than comparable, manually propelled machines.
More important is that some of the more expensive WindTunnels are bagless -- when the dustbin gets full, you just open a trap door and dump it out. This eliminates those searches for replacement bags.
Another advantage of bagless is that when you mistakenly vacuum up something valuable -- an earring, keys, $20 bill -- you can retrieve it without having to open the contents of a grim, packed paper bag.
Finally, with no bag and the dustbin encased in clear plastic, you can actually watch WindTunnels suck the muck in, and that’s somehow satisfying.
While I watch the dirt go in, some WindTunnel models listen for it. The company’s Dirtfinder feature consists of a small audio sensor that detects the sound of dirt entering the machine. When the sound is clear -- signifying that all the dirt has been sucked in -- the sensor triggers a green light on the cleaner to tell the user it’s time to move on to another area.
By the way, Hoover still sells the Elite -- with bag and no audio sensor -- for about $90.
The WindTunnels are snazzy, but I have to admit that the uprights that truly caught my eye -- and that of the design world, as well -- were those made by an English company, Dyson Direct, founded by inventor James Dyson. The missile-shaped Dyson DC07 is encased in smooth plastic that is colored in crayon-like shades of yellow, purple or red. It has ergonomics so cuddly that it makes you want to grab it and go to work on those floors.
Instead of industrial chic, it has a kind of industrial playful look that reminds you that tools can -- and should -- be beautiful.
But the DC07 doesn’t get by on just its looks. It uses a dual-cyclone action to suck dirt into its clear, bagless bin (Dyson introduced bagless technology in the early 1980s). It’s designed to maintain optimum suction power no matter how full the dustbin gets.
Dyson vacuums were featured in the “A Century of Design” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2000, as well as in shows at the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
It might be art to some, but these functional machines also are relatively accessible -- the Dysons sell at stores such as Sears and Best Buy, and online for about $400 to $500.
And on the political comparison front, it sweeps up at 10 Downing St.
Sears has updated it resident Kenmore to keep up with the times. Its vacuums might not be as good-looking as the DC07, but some Kenmore canister and upright models come with extremely handy hoses that pull out to as much as 25 feet. With this feature, you can leave the main unit at the bottom of the steps in the average two-story home and keep vacuuming all the way up to the top.
Some Kenmores, in the $260 to $500 range, also come with a feature similar to Hoover’s Dirtfinder, but they use infrared instead of audio sensors.
Vacuum technology keeps progressing. In development at Massey University in New Zealand is a solar-powered device that is so self-sufficient it’s scary. The device is actually a group of little vacuums that sun themselves by windows to recharge and then rush around a room to do their work when no one is there. When someone enters the room, they scurry under the sofa or other objects to hide. Just think what the family dog might think of that.
I have not bought a new vacuum. Yet.
Sure, they work better and are certainly more attractive. But the choices are daunting -- more than 30 current models at the Sears store alone. And this is a machine that I’ll probably have to live with for 15 more years, at least.
If I just wait a little bit longer, who knows what new features and new looks might be available? Or the current machines, which seem plenty good at the moment, might go down in price.
Maybe I’m just not ready to abandon my little Elite.
It might be a silly emotion, but I can blame these companies and image specialists who aim to make us love our appliances.
They should not be surprised when we are reluctant to let them go.
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A sweeping comparison
Vacuum cleaners are no longer mundane appliances. With stylish designs, high-powered motors and high-tech features, these new models skillfully combine form and function.
These canister models might not be the hippest looking, but they come with great attachments and high-tech options.
Some of these upright vacuums are self-propelled, which does add weight. Their sonic dirt finders are ingenious.
This German company made vacuum cleaners chic in 1984 when it introduced its colorful lineup of powerful sealed canisters.
The hip uprights of the moment come in crayon-like colors, with powerful motors and inviting ergonomics.