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British airports look like scruffy shopping malls; modern cars are packed with too many gadgets. These are some of the views expressed in a new book by Sir Terence Conran, one of the world's leading designers. Terence Conran on Design presents his thoughts on everything from toothbrushes to offices, through a series of campaigning essays. Here we publish his views on transport and, next week, you can read his radical ideas about "work", both the design of the places we toil in and also the tools of the contemporary office

TRAVEL has provided some of the most powerful metaphors in 20th- century design: speed is the essence of contemporary life. Yet early cars did not look fast: the "horseless carriage" preserved the coachbuilt appearance of horse-drawn carriages: not surprising since they were made by the same craftsmen. Even when Henry Ford set out to produce a cheap car for the masses and the days of the coachbuilt car were numbered, the resulting simplicity of the Model-T did not suggest speed or power. The car was still a functional machine, not an object of desire.

By the early Twenties, with the building of the Italian autostrada - the first fast multi-lane roads - the lure of speed began to take hold. Designers searched for a new aesthetic to express the liberating power of the car.

That aesthetic was streamlining. The flow of air over a body had been studied for some time, but the development of aircraft provided new impetus to apply the research. The taut lines of a fish swimming through water, the profile of a bird's wing, and the tapering curves of a teardrop were all naturally streamlined forms which suggested to early car designers a combination of smoothness of movement, powerful forward direction and dynamism. And by providing a potent visual link between cars and air flight, streamlining helped to create a unified image of modern transport.

Streamlining took a long while to infiltrate mass production. Scientific research eventually established that the teardrop was not actually the most aerodynamic shape after all, but in the meantime, its impact on car design was tremendous. For the first time, designers considered the car as a whole object. The image of streamlining, which could suggest speed and power even when the car was standing still, depended on uninterrupted smooth lines and the suppression of features such as wing mirrors.

Some of the most satisfying of all car designs - those classics we hold in affectionate regard - are the fruit of this period. The Volkswagen Beetle, designed by Dr Ferdinand Porsche, owes much to the Tatra 87, a pioneering Czech design of 1936, as well as to the teardrop car of Paul Jarey, who worked on the design of the Zeppelin.

Frank Costin, who established the look of Formula One racing cars in the Fifties, was originally trained at the De Havilland Aircraft Company and had a passionate interest in airflow and aerodynamics. His tapering, curvaceous, dramatic designs, such as the Lotus Elite and 1957 Vanhall, summarise the glamour of motor racing in its heyday.

Nowadays, the design of Formula One cars reflects the need to keep the car from lifting at increasingly incredible speeds - and the result is a far less beautiful object. But those early post-war racing cars still define the classic sportscar profile, a shape enshrined in the E-type Jaguar and Porsche 911.

In order to sell more cars to more people, or more cars to the same people over and over again, it was necessary to offer stylistic choice - colour, shape, specification, performance - in short, to invest the car with social meanings and values through style.

The car, arguably the most dominant factor in the shaping of modern culture, is today the ultimate design object, expressing every nuance of status and aspiration. Junior executives on their way up the corporate ladder know the exact specification of the car to which their rank should entitle them.

One of the most upwardly mobile of all recent car designs was the Mark I Golf GTi - or "Guaranteed Theft Item" as it has been colloquially termed. The quintessential "hot hatch" with its phenomenal acceleration, won a cult following as the first cheap high-performance car - "the next best thing to Michelle Pfeiffer" in the words of one reviewer. The identification of a car with sex, potency and career aspiration is not new: but the GTi was the first relatively inexpensive small car to fall squarely into this bracket.

Quality has an important place in car design, but it must be real quality, not a simulation of it. When the Conran Design Group was commissioned to design the interior of the "Discovery" Range Rover the elegance of the solution arose from the understanding of the materials involved and the way they could be worked to create a unified image of quality. This is far more valuable and satisfying than the type of "creeping featurism" which clutters up the fascia with gadgets.

I believe that over-specification is a spurious means of adding value. But it is easy to see why car manufacturers and designers concentrate on such features, not to mention catchy names, jazzy colours, hectic graphics and go-faster stripes: the scope for real innovation and diversity would seem to be narrowing all the time. It is a common complaint today that all cars look alike. The predictability of mass-market cars reflects, to some extent, the real successes of research and design in identifying the safest, most aerodynamic, fuel-efficient and cost-effective solution to mass-production.

Ford, for example, used to make cars for a specific country, such as the British Anglia: then the company made them for a particular continent. Now, with different parts made in different places around the world and assembled somewhere else, "national" identity has become something of a fiction. Yet, despite global marketing and production, what one might still call national characteristics seem to linger in car design, supported, in many cases, by advertising imagery.

The most extreme example of the car as a national symbol, of course, is the KdF-Wagen, better known as the Beetle. Nothing could be further from the Beetle's lovable contemporary image than its origins, under the auspices of Hitler, as the Kampf durch Freude Wagen, or "Strength through Joy Car". Designed in the late 1930s by Dr Porsche as a car for the people, the project found favour with the leaders of the Third Reich who were keen to provide Germans with the type of mass mobility offered by the Model-T Ford.

The American press provided the Beetle with its nickname in 1938, but the interruption of the war years and the subsequent reconstruction of the German economy meant that it was not until the Fifties that the Beetle first appeared on the American market. When it did, its association with an inglorious period of German history was forgotten and a brilliant campaign by Doyle Dane Bernbach helped to win the car a cult following as the antidote to the tail-finned gas-guzzlers that American families aspired to own. Using black-and-white photography, wry catchlines and editorial copy which emphasised the Beetle's quiet virtues, the campaign was revolutionary for its understatement and effectiveness. In the film Sleeper, Woody Allen, awakening in the future, comes across an old Beetle which starts first time - a joke which plays on the advertising.

With approximately 22m Beetles sold, the car has become a universal cultural reference point. Yet, while its origins remain fairly obscure for the majority, the Beetle has reinforced the image of German car manufacture as efficient and reliable.

Wit and character are also evident in the Renault Twingo, the Nissan S-Cargo van or the Nissan Micra, something of a departure for Japanese car manufacturers which have had a reputation for producing slick products with more of a computer-generated feel than a true spirit of innovation.

Despite an often lukewarm critical reception, the phenomenal success of Japan in transport design cannot be ignored. Part of the Japanese miracle has been their nurturing of small-parts firms, and their recognition that such links in the manufacturing chain have made the Hondas and Toyotas what they are today. Another aspect of their success has been the Japanese devotion to research: a survey of the American market identified the importance of the intangibles such as the satisfying clunk of a closing door or the classy aroma of leather upholstery.

One hundred years after the first car took to the road, designers are now returning to motoring's glorious past for inspiration. While it has been a fruitful, creative wellspring in other cultural forms, from interior design to fashion, the past has never been much of a reference point in travel.

Where modernisation, even futurism, retains a stronghold is in aviation. It is no accident that some of the most confident, exuberantly modern buildings are airports, and it is curious how much we welcome such innovative and expressive designs in this context while dismissing and scorning them in others. A classic example is Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at New York's Kennedy airport, a building which embodies the spirit of flight. I think it is a fantastic design. Approaching the building, you feel as if you are already beginning the process of flying.

Stansted Airport, to the north-east of London, designed by Norman Foster, is also inspiring. Here, by contrast to many places where masses of people gather, natural light is treated as a positive element, as the soul or spirit of the building, or a reminder of the sky into which they will shortly be jetting off.

A similar experience - of rising excitement matched with control and order - is offered by Nicholas Grim-shaw's Eurostar terminus at Waterloo. The sinuous glazed roof of the station, echoed in the articulated silvery fish on the concourse, add drama, theatre and wit to an undersea crossing.

These are good examples of how to handle passengers in transit. But, those in charge of mass travel are not always inspired to commission such masterpieces of design. Airports are increasingly viewed as opportunities to indulge in a little spending: a flight is a journey with a shopping trip at each end. The commercialisation of airport space means that no matter how innovative the building design, the interior has come to resemble a frenetic shopping mall, with such a confusion of shop signage and logos that it is difficult to locate the way to the plane.

Air travel, no matter how commonplace it has become for the majority of the population, is still stressful. It is necessary for the designer to reassure passengers, to inform them clearly and direct them efficiently, to prevent accidents and to create a rational traffic flow. At the same time, the sheer volume of people passing through means that material used must either be of the variety that age well or so tough that they resist the roughest wear and tear.

In 1967, which was still the early days of mass air travel, my design group was commissioned to come up with a scheme for fitting out the interior of Heathrow Terminal 1. The client, British Airports Authority (BAA), had some disagreements with the architects of the building and eventually rejected its designs for the interior. We were then given the task of designing a modern space within a framework of some unsympathetic detailing, such as heavy teak handrails. In the end, our solution overcame the rusticated detailing through the boldness of its approach - all curves, chrome and sculptural plastic. Everything had rounded edges, facilitated by our use of fibreglass, laminate and rubber - sympathetically space-age and agreeably modern.

This job is one of those of which I am most proud. The almost industrial quality of the materials and design was tempered by the curves and soft edges, a practical decision, since square edges are more readily knocked and damaged, and an aesthetic one, since sharp edges look forbidding, while sharp, damaged edges look tacky. Our vision of modernity, had it survived, would look dated now - but not as dated as what it has been replaced by.

Our task, some years later, at Gatwick's North Terminal, was rather different. Here we had the opportunity to work closely with the building's architects, YRM, from the very beginning. Over the seven-year course of the project, we approached the design of the interior with close reference to the design of the terminal as a whole, so that everything appears to share the same "handwriting" - what, at the time was called "seamless design".

We endeavoured in the design of the internal layout to create a smooth, logical flow of traffic that would require little additional signage. In large public spaces the temptation is always to fall back on complex signage systems to direct people here and there. I believe that signage can never be a substitute for solving interior design problems: if a space is functionally designed, next to no signs ought to be needed. Our taste for simplicity and order in this context was eventually undermined by commercial considerations.

The difficulty, or perhaps I should say the challenge, of working with clients arises when designers find themselves pushed into directions they do not want to go. In the case of North Terminal, BAA was adamant that the floor should be carpeted in a heavily patterned design. My own instinct would have been hard flooring, which works so beautifully at Stansted, but in the end we were forced to bow to the argument put forward by the client that carpet is easier (and hence cheaper) to clean than hard surfaces, and to the research they had commissioned which stated that their customers preferred softer, cosier environments.

The aspect of our work at Gatwick which pleases me most was the design of two sculptures. BAA stipulated it wanted a "feature", a visual statement to give the terminal a sense of identity. Our idea was for each sculpture to consist of a simple polished-steel cone with water gently playing down its sides. The dynamism of the steel shape, with its aeronautical echoes, combined with the soothing sound of the water, seems to me to be perfectly symbolic of the atmosphere we were tying to create and of the tension between excited anticipation and calm, confident efficiency that all airports should provide.

Recently we were asked to act as consultants to Japan Air Lines (JAL), which wanted a European perspective on Japanese style. One of the aspects we considered was how to improve the quality of life for the passenger.

Our expectations of air travel have been revised down to the point where most people dread the discomfort and inconvenience of flying. One of our suggestions to JAL for restoring an element of quality and service included the use of ceramic, steel, bamboo, glass and wood for eating utensils and containers. Another was to adopt a neutral background for all the fixed parts of the interior to act as a foil for coloured headrest covers, cushions, napkins, blankets and staff uniforms. We recommended that the colour of these items should be changed seasonally to counter the depressing uniformity of modern air travel. The serenity and simplicity of traditional Japanese style could be conveyed elegantly with the use of classic Japanese flower arrangements, clear graphics and accessories such as eye shields, all beautifully designed.

Design at this level is always about infinitesimal details, a sum of parts that add up to more than the whole. No detail is too small. The designers working on the new Boeing 777 spent much effort ensuring that when the lid of the lavatory fell down it did so, not with a bang but a whisper. The small device which slowed the lid so that it did not hit the seat was part of the attempt to create a sense of quality and comfort.

JAL was looking for a way to convey a specifically Japanese quality: national identity or "flying the flag" is a feature of much design in the field of travel. One has only to look at the heraldic flourish on the tailfin of a BA jet for an obvious example - although it was put there by American designer Walter Landor. This desire to express national difference comes at a time when the world is shrinking rapidly and travellers arrive halfway across the globe to find that there is no "there" there.

Is the future of mass travel a design problem? It is certainly conceivable that the solution to the crisis affecting transportation could be design- led. Throughout the post-war period, design has become increasingly based around consumption rather than production, and in the process has created a language for communicating values.

Design, in every field, has been seen as a way of participating in culture as well as a means of determining it. When the 1974 oil crisis began to bite, and the classic American "dream machine" - half a block long and with petrol consumption to match - seemed almost unpatriotic, designers found a role creating cars that were smaller and more energy-efficient, but attractive.

These persistent late twentieth-century conflicts, between the drive for expansion and innovation and the need for conservation and renewal - offer plenty of scope for designers, creatively and analytically. At the same time, we need to reassess how and when we travel - a properly funded rail network could, and should, tempt passengers and freight to take the train, freeing our roads of congestion and alleviating air pollution. By devising alternative forms of transport, which are practicable and desirable, designers again may help to move us all forward. !