Sir James Dyson, the British designer and engineer, stood in his vast glass office in the depths of the English countryside one recent Tuesday afternoon. He was clutching a device that he contends could change the monotony of bathroom routines forever.
“There has been zero innovation in this market for over 60 years,” said Dyson, 68, a billionaire who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006.
“Millions of people use contraptions daily that are hideously inefficient, waste their time and are causing them long-term damage,” he said. “We realized that we could — and should — sort this situation out.”
He triumphantly held up what appeared to be a sleek black and pink plastic doughnut on a stick. “Four years, 100 odd patents and 600 prototypes later, I think we might have found the answer.”
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Known as the Dyson Supersonic and unveiled in Tokyo last week, the device is his response to a question many never thought to ask: Is it possible to make a better hair dryer?
This may not seem like a big deal. A few burned scalps and frizz issues aside, people have been doing just fine with the standard hair dryer for decades. But, as Dai Fujiwara, a Japanese fashion designer who has collaborated with Dyson, wrote in an e-mail, “Because everyday life is too common, people rarely realize there is a problem.”
Dyson, Britain’s best-known living inventor, is the Steve Jobs of domestic appliances. He has built a fortune from making otherwise standard products seem aesthetically desirable, in the process persuading untold numbers of consumers that they really, really want cordless and bagless vacuum cleaners, air purifiers, bladeless fans and even household robots.
“His inventions are disruptive — beautifully so,” said Terence Conran, the British restaurateur, retailer and furniture designer. “Who would have imagined that a bagless vacuum cleaner could become a highly covetable status symbol? He has made other businesses think differently about how to use design, creativity and innovation.”
Cracking the science of hair
Dyson said 103 engineers were involved in the creation of the Supersonic, which included the taming of more than 1,010 miles of human hair tresses and 7,000 acoustic tests as teams tackled three core issues: noise, weight and speed.
Ground zero for the project was the Dyson research facility, a Willy Wonka-like world deep in the rolling Wiltshire hills, with a Harrier fighter jet and spliced Mini car in the visitors’ parking lot.
Projects are kept under lock and key from virtually all outsiders — as well as many within the walls itself (which, like those owned by Roald Dahl’s flamboyant fictional chocolate factory owner, are often painted a lurid purple).
Ed Shelton, a design manager for the Supersonic, said: “It was the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. Beyond having to crack the science of hair, we’ve had to tackle a highly subjective user psychology.
“Trust me when I say there are many more approaches and angles to blow-drying than vacuuming in the world. British women want volume. Japanese women want straightness. No one wants hair damage. And then we had to create a fleet of robots specifically to test that over and over again.”
The ‘break the Internet’ dryer
The company says the key to the Supersonic is its high-speed, 13-blade motor. About the size of a quarter, the motor is small enough to fit in the base of the hair dryer handle, rather than in the conventional motor position at the top of the device, a shift that creates its unorthodox streamlined aesthetic.
The smaller motor allows for high velocity flow but not pressure, the company says, which is how temperatures shoot up on traditional hair dryers and users burn themselves if the dryer is too close to the head.
The company says the positioning of the motor in the hand also limits the so-called dumbbell effect of old-guard models, where top-heavy weighting can cause arms to ache. Weighing just 370 grams, or about 13 ounces, the new structure allows for a longer silencer tube and smaller fan, cutting down drastically on noise.
Coupled with the high motor speed, the fusion of new technologies gives rise to Dyson’s claims that the sound waves can operate at an ultrasonic level — in other words, at frequencies higher than the upper audible limit for humans. It also has magnetic heatproof nozzles and intelligent heat sensors to prevent hair burn.
Both Dyson the man and Dyson the company are conscious that they may not come across as the most convincing of beauty gurus.
So the company has enlisted the services of Jen Atkin, a celebrity hairstylist with a client Rolodex that includes Kim Kardashian, Jessica Alba and Katy Perry and a social media following of millions.
“That back-heavy feeling that usually makes your arms ache completely disappears with this, whether working on your own hair or blow drying someone else,” Atkin said. “For me, or any woman, that is a game changer. This is the ‘break the Internet’ dryer.”
The $399 hair dryer
As with any other Dyson device, research and development didn’t come cheap: The investment, including a state-of-the-art hair laboratory, reached 50 million euros (about $72 million).
As a result, the Supersonic will retail at $399 when it arrives in the United States at Sephora stores in September, a price at stark odds with the low-priced, high-volume business model that has traditionally defined the competitive hair dryer market.
Hair dryers sold by Amazon in the United States retail for $12.99 to $219.98.
Still, Dyson has a convincing track record in persuading fans to pay hundreds of dollars on domestic status symbols that spend most of their working lives in the cupboard under the stairs or next to the dog basket.