In conversation with the brilliant British inventor/designer/engineer, and keeper of many an industrial secret. First published in the October 2012 edition of ELLE Decoration UK
Getting an appointment to interview Sir James Dyson is not easy. He travels a lot. But once a date is set, gaining entry to the complex that is his office and research centre in Malmesbury, Wiltshire, is almost as difficult. Once off the train, the taxis know exactly where Dyson HQ is, but as you approach, barriers halt progress and a security guard checks you off a list while a multitude of signs declare: ‘Photography strictly controlled on this site’. The building is a rectangular, modern block with a wavy roof and a glass bridge leading to the main reception. It’s not quite a drawbridge but there is a Harrier Jump Jet parked on the lawn in front. ‘To shoot down intruders,’ jokes the taxi driver.
Dyson is in a meeting when we arrive but we’re ushered into his personal office to wait for him. I’m surprised that after all that security we’re free to nose and take pictures. So we do. On his bookshelf, three volumes tucked in amongst the expected engineering and design tomes are Powerful Women; Working with Emotional Intelligence and The Fall of Advertising and the Rise of PR. Interesting. And then he arrives.
Tall, charming and to begin with, slightly distant, Dyson is not frosty so much, as emanating a sense of not being quite sure whether we’re friend or foe. In truth, he doesn’t give interviews often, but in light of the ELLE Decoration Equal Rights for Design campaign, which he endorsed, we made the grade. And once warmed up, it’s blazingly obvious how passionate he is about what he does. ‘My motivation is to make something better than what currently exists,’ he says. It was this deceptively simple philosophy that saw him reimagine the vacuum cleaner, without the inefficient bag; the wheelbarrow so that it could traverse bumpy ground; the fan that won’t slice your fingers to ribbons; and a hygienic hand dryer. And with an estimated fortune of £1.45 billion, it’s all turned out to be rather profitable, too. ‘Making something is the most creative thing you can do,’ he continues. ‘Solving a problem. Constantly innovating. Design on its own isn’t good enough. To be a success, you’ve got to use new technologies, better engines and better design to make something the world wants. Something to excite people visually.’ Yes, but why such garish colours, I ask, referring specifically to the fantastically popular Dyson vacuum cleaners? ‘We tried black and white; it didn’t sell.’
Indeed. I’m fascinated by Dyson’s determination. It was incredibly difficult for him to get his business off the ground in this country (he launched the vacuum cleaner in Japan in the end) and since then, British courts have dismissed his patent infringement cases and denied him planning permission to extend his factory. And what of the condemnation when he ultimately moved manufacturing overseas. After all that, how did he feel about being knighted? He looks momentarily wary, then answers slowly, ‘Stumped. Very few engineers or manufacturers have been knighted.’ But did the struggle ever get to him? ‘I guess I got used to people being obstructive, plagiarists, copyists,’ he says, adding with magnificent understatement, ‘It’s very disappointing.’ But then, he admits, he’s relentless, which he says is ‘different from being stubborn’.
Dyson grew up in rural north Norfolk. His mother was an English teacher and his father taught classics. He read Latin, Greek and ancient history at university, before joining the RCA to study first furniture and interior design before moving on to engineering. ‘I wanted to meld them all together,’ he says. Today he plucks talent straight from universities and colleges (‘before they get contaminated’) for his research department, and in 2002 he set up the James Dyson Foundation: ‘working to inspire and support future Edisons and Brunels’.
So what’s next? ‘Ahh…’ he says, smiling, before openly adding, ‘We’re working on lots to do with efficient motors, engines, batteries. Digital versus electric.’ And then he clams up. It’s not surprising. Inventions and ideas are his lifeblood. And with his research, design and development department currently in total lockdown, we know he’s up to something big; my money is on a Dyson digital car.
Tell me five words to describe yourself… Persistent. Frustrated. Relentless. Never satisfied.
If you could be a different nationality, what would you be? Probably Roman. In the old sense.
Who is your favourite fictional hero? Hephaestus, son of Zeus, husband to Aphrodite. He was a blacksmith [god of the fire and the forge].
Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with? [Long pause] I’ll come back to you on that.
What did you want to be as a child? I didn’t know what an engineer was, but I did fantasise about inventing. And I read The Eagle magazine, which used to feature inventions.
What was the last film you saw? Prendimi L’Anima or The Soul Keeper, a film based on secret correspondence between Jung, Freud and Sabina Spielrein. I’d highly recommend it.
What book are you reading right now? Byron in Love by Edna O’Brien. He mixed love, scandal and heroism in equal measure.
Who is your favourite painter? When I was at the RCA in the 1960s, it seemed like every big name had been there, but Hockney stood out for the powerful ideas in his Pop art.
Which historical figure would you most like to have met? Brunel’s marrying of engineering and design has always captivated me. I’d love to know how he persuaded the government of the time to do great feats of engineering.
If you were an animal, what would you be? I’ve always been fascinated by the aerodynamics of the hummingbird.
What can’t you live without? Jasmine tea.
If space travel were affordable, would you go? It’s difficult not to be amazed by the complexity of space exploration. The engineering challenges posed by orbital mechanics and the difficulty of re-entry to earth are fascinating.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? The Dyson digital motor. I’m most excited by the technology it could lead us to create in the future.
Are you religious? Church was always a bit too solemn for me. I spent my Sundays in the shed building things instead.
What should you never have in your home? Bagged vacuums, of course.
What star sign are you? Taurus.
Do you believe in luck? I believe in self-generated luck. If you try as many things as possible, often the wrong things, you will create your own luck.
Do you have a motto? Never give up.