James Dyson regards his new headquarters building, designed by Chris Wilkinson Architects, as an asset on many levels. Not only does the building work extremely well: it also helps to 'sell' the company to potential employees. 'We are competing for the very best engineering and computer science graduates,' says Dyson. 'The image of the building undoubtedly helps.'
Dyson - recently a member of the Stirling Prize jury - is the inventor of the Dual Cyclone vacuum cleaner, which has brought him personal wealth and the status of a design hero. Of the 1200 staff employed at Dyson's Malmesbury base, more than 200 are graduate research engineers and designers. It is little more than five years, amazingly, since the first Dyson cleaner rolled off the production line. Retailers were sceptical and competitors - having rejected Dyson's revolutionary technology - dismissive, which turned to blind hostility once Dyson broke through into the mass market. But the public took to the new, silver-and-yellow machines. Dyson now dominates the vacuum-cleaner market in Britain and is beginning to make inroads abroad. He is planning other products - which remain, for the moment, top secret.
It would not be surprising if Dyson were paranoid about privacy and security. An early idea, the Ballbarrow, was stolen by a competitor and Dyson obtained no redress. He also had to fight a long legal battle against an American company which copied his cleaner designs. Having despaired of securing a reasonable licence deal from established manufacturers, he resolved to manufacture his own vacuum cleaners. The core of his operation was a group of designers - most of them still with the company - from the Royal College of Art, where Dyson studied in the late 1960s. He had to borrow hugely - £1 million was needed for the basic tooling. There was no money for advertising or branding, so Dyson personally took the cleaners around the big stores and mail-order houses, persuading some of them to give the new product a trial. They sold, despite costing around twice as much as competing products, because they looked good and worked remarkably well. Dyson cleaners are now displayed in the Design Museum, the v&a and elsewhere, and are acclaimed as classics. 'Products can only begin to be beautiful when they work well,' Dyson insists. 'It's a matter of function, not styling.'
The son of a schoolmaster, Dyson went to art school before entering the rca - 'the bedrock of my career', as he calls it. There he attended Tony Hunt's lectures on structures, learned about Buckminster Fuller, and was fired to become the Isambard Kingdom Brunel of the twentieth century. At the age of 20, he designed a new theatre for Joan Littlewood. The theatre remained unbuilt, but the project introduced Dyson to the manufacturer and inventor Jeremy Fry, who gave him a directorship when he was just 25 - remembering, perhaps, this extraordinary act of confidence, Dyson is adept at identifying and promoting bright young talents in his own company.
Dyson may be one of the stars of 'creative Britain', but he is critical of British attitudes to innovation and to industry in general. High interest rates are part of an economy which encourages those who merely move money around, rather than create wealth, he says. Chris Wilkinson's building might well have been in Wales, had the Welsh Office (under David Hunt) warmed to Dyson's request for financial help to locate there. 'It seems that they're only interested in foreign companies,' says Dyson. 'People like us don't count.'
One of Dyson's greatest satisfactions is proving the critics, who said that the public would not pay more for quality, wrong. He made a limited model De Stijl cleaner, in bright, primary colours - 'it was good to see it advertised in the Sun, with a note explaining what De Stijl was', he says. 'Design isn't just for the educated classes.' But good design need not be sober, let alone dull - 'one of the attractions of the Dyson cleaner is that it's fun to see how things work', he says. Needless to say, many of the parts Dyson uses have to be made abroad. 'We wanted a yellow plug. Nobody here was interested in making one - Plugs, they said, are either white or brown. So we import them by the thousand from France.'
One senses that Dyson was a stimulating, but not an easy, client. Talking to a services engineer about the ventilation strategy for the new building, he discovered that 90 per cent of the air supply would be recycled. 'I didn't want recycled air,' he says. 'I wanted fresh. I told him to go away and rethink it.' Dyson became successful by putting quality and performance above price and paying close attention to the details. If only his philosophy could be applied not just to industry but to architecture. Discarded, old-style vacuum cleaners can be consigned to rubbish tips or even recycled, but the equivalent buildings will continue to disfigure our landscape for generations.