James Dyson: “The Public Wants to Buy Strange Things”

He made billions selling vacuums. Now he is backing Brexit, building an electric car — and making antiquated comments on “racial differences.”

Here is David Gelles’ profile of James Dyson for The New York Times. To read the complete article and check out other resources, please click here.

Credit: Erik Tanner for The New York Times

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James Dyson is unapologetically British.

The product of the English boarding school system, Mr. Dyson found his calling as an industrial designer and built one of the most successful private companies in the United Kingdom by selling his distinctive vacuums. He was knighted in 2007, served as the provost of the Royal College of Art in London and is one of the country’s richest men.

Yet in a globalized economy, Mr. Dyson remains intently focused on what he believes is Britain’s exceptional place in the world. He wistfully refers to the British Empire, and unlike most in the business community, is in favor of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, believing Brexit will make the country stronger economically and culturally.

In this interview, Mr. Dyson expressed antiquated and at times offensive views on “racial differences” and Japanese culture. He also referred to growth markets in Asia as the “Far East.” When asked to clarify his remarks, Mr. Dyson declined to comment further. (Read a portion of his comments on Japan below.)

Mr. Dyson discovered his passion for design at an early age, and eventually began work on his signature product, the bagless vacuum cleaner. It took several years, but he brought the product to market, founding Dyson Ltd. in 1991. Soon, Dyson was expanding internationally and developing new products, including washing machines, fans, heaters, air purifiers, hand dryers and hair dryers. It is now at work on an electric car.

However Brexit plays out, Mr. Dyson’s company looks like it will endure. It posted a strong jump in sales last year, thanks in large part to strong sales in Asia.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted in New York.

What was your childhood like?

My father died when I was quite young. He was a teacher at a boarding school, but he didn’t have life insurance, so the school allowed my brother and I to continue there. Boarding is pretty harsh stuff. You’re sent away for 14 weeks, and your parents could visit you one Saturday a term, and that was it. “Feelings” is a word I didn’t know until I was about 50.

How did you get interested in design?

I did art at boarding school, which I really enjoyed. So I decided to go to art school in London. That’s where I discovered design and thought, “That’s what I want to be doing. I want to be designing and creating things.” I started off with architecture, and then I discovered Buckminster Fuller, the great American inventor, entrepreneur. And suddenly, the thing that was interesting me the most was the thing I always thought was incredibly boring, which is engineering.

What was your first job?

When I was in college, I went to this industrialist at an engineering company. He said, “I’ll give you some design jobs.” He had this idea for this high-speed landing craft for the military and said, “Why don’t you design that?” I knew nothing about boats, though I didn’t dare say it, but it sounded fun. So we built a prototype, and then the chairman of the company said, “Well you better start selling it.”

I looked at him slightly blankly and said, “Well, don’t I have to do some market research?” And he said, “Don’t bother. It’s a good product. Anyway, you’re the engineer, you know every nut and bolt of the thing.”

And you sold them?

I didn’t look like a business man or anything. I had flowing trousers, long hair, flowered shirts. But I set up the company and manufacturing, and I sold them for five years. We sold them to militaries all over the world, to oil companies, construction companies, smugglers bringing American cigarettes into Italy.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.


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