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Design is at the forefront of modern travel, with yet more innovations on the way as Julietta Jameson, Anthony Dennis and Belinda Jackson discover.

TRAINS

It's one of the most futuristic images of modern transport. A sleek, shiny white Japanese bullet train streaking, like a wrong-way-up rocket, across a rice field-studded landscape with the sacred, perpetually snow-capped Mount Fuji as its backdrop.

Fashionable impression: an artist's impression of a German-designed train of the future.
Fashionable impression: an artist's impression of a German-designed train of the future. 

But the reality is that shinkansen, or new trunk-line as the bullet train is properly known in Japan, was introduced in 1964, capitalising on the international prestige delivered by the Tokyo Olympics that year, a potent symbol of Japan's breathtaking postwar technological revival.

The fundamental design of such long-distance trains, capable of reaching speeds greater than 350 kilometres an hour, has changed little in 50 years - surely the essence of great design.

Yes, there have been major advances, such as the German-designed magnetic levitation (Maglev) train, with the first such operating between Shanghai's Pudong Airport to the city. But essentially the shape of high-speed (and much slower) trains, with the distinctive streamlined nose of the engine, is roughly the same, something that also applies to the design of modern airliners. It's perhaps the interiors of trains (and planes) where much progress has been made in terms of comfort, though aside from tourist trains the romantic dining car has been replaced by prosaic cafeteria cars.

First-class train travel of the future.
First-class train travel of the future. 

We can credit the French for advancing long-distance train design when Philippe Starck was commissioned to redesign the interiors of France's high-speed TGV, rendering carriages more akin to funked-up airline cabins. Indeed, Boeing's troubled Dreamliner passenger jet features vaunted oversize windows more reminiscent of a rail carriage.

Elsewhere, according to Global Rail News, design students at the University of Applied Science in Graz, Austria, have devised a concept for a transparent carriage, where the body of the train is composed of hexagonal panels; while architect firm Hassell has radically rethought train interiors for the theoretical, unlikely to be built Australian bullet train. AD

HOTELS

The Sofitel So in Bangkok.
The Sofitel So in Bangkok. 

The mainstreamed green consciousness of the 21st century and the fashionableness of Zen spaces brought about an almost zealous adherence to earth tones, dark wood and straight lines. Chuck in a tea light, plonk a Buddha statue somewhere, scatter a few wooden bowls and furry cushions and there you had it - the "noughties" hotel room. But if the past decade was all about the beiging of hotels, then get ready for the technicolour revolution. Hotel design is becoming bespoke. Love or loathe the hipster, make fun of their beards and bicycles if you will, but the rise of the urban individualist says much about generational change in sensibilities.

Design that harks back to a simpler time, when granny put a doily under a vase on top of the TV set and dinner came on mismatched china, is the new cool. And that is transferring to hotels.

Sofitel So is a new design-driven label. Kenzo Takada, Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld have had a hand in the first three properties in Bangkok, Singapore and Mauritius. Across the brand, you'll find rooms as individual as their guests. Even business chains such as Marriott have caught the bug. The giant American has teamed with 1980s enfant terrible of the industry Ian Schrager (of Morgans fame) to produce Edition, a series of hotels with design at the centre.

W New York hotel.
W New York hotel. 

The new QT Sydney hotel employed art curator de jour Amanda Love to oversee its installations, while the Art Series Hotels in Melbourne had each of its properties designed around the work of a particular directional Australian artist. In Europe, Dutchman Marcel Wanders, dubbed "the Lady Gaga of design", has transformed an old public library into the Andaz Amsterdam, with a kooky "artistically Dutch decor inspired by local themes".

Across the Atlantic, 55 new hotels are under construction in New York, with themes ranging from 1920s speakeasy (NYLO New York City) to Brady Bunch '70s groovy (the Quin). Also in NYC, the hotel world is watching and waiting for the Willow, by Roman and Williams, the hot, hot, hot designers behind some of the city's funkiest spaces. The duo, who have worked on films for the likes of Martin Scorsese and been entrusted with renovations of architectural icon Frank Lloyd Wright's work have flagged a mid-century aesthetic. Mad Men indeed. JJ

AIRLINES

A Rouge flight attendant.
A Rouge flight attendant. 

Catering to passengers' individual tastes and giving them a sense of personal control has become the new black for airlines, with research by Singapore Airlines that shows "no two customers are the same". Even once-ultra-daggy American Airlines has recognised that, introducing a self-service bar - a first for any US airline, where pointy-end passengers can help themselves to canapes and drinks.

But touches such as a mirror incorporated into in-seat storage and a pivoting table that allows an easy exit, even with a meal on the go are the real passenger empowerments. Customer individuality concerns have resulted in greater choices of seat positioning, more privacy, and more accessible storage nooks. SIA's new Biz seats are among the most responsive going. Expect others to follow suit.

Virgin Atlantic, whose groovy nightclub-style product when first introduced looked as novel as Austin Powers' ties, has upgraded some of its cabins with the individual experience in mind. Upper Class now includes suites - but the glowing red "futuristic" bar and Swarovski crystals used with abandon are all about the airline expressing itself.

It's not just Virgin using design to state its identity: Air Canada's new holiday airline, Rouge, has flight attendants decked out in cardigans, cool hats and designer shoes, while Finnair has introduced crockery by Marimekko to its cabins, a move that gives the passenger a more homely experience.

This personal touch extends to airline lounge design. Qantas led the way with its Marc Newson-designed first-class lounge in Sydney and its privacy suites. Now British Airways offers private dining booths and cabanas in its Concorde Lounge at Heathrow, stating "privacy as top priority", while Air China's JPA-designed space at Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport is another case in point, with "a sense of intimacy and human scale". With Singapore Airlines, Cathay and Qantas all rolling out new or renovated lounges within the next year, expect the ante to be well and truly upped. JJ

LUGGAGE

Baggage fees, lost luggage and the melee at the carousel have made the carry-on the bag of choice for frequent flyers. But new design developments may convince even the heaviest of heavy packers to go light, especially if they stumble across Briggs & Riley Baseline bag with a built-in compression system, which squeezes 33 per cent more into the standard bag space.

While a big general luggage trend is towards more exterior spaces for ease of access to things needed while travelling, others have their own unique proverbial bells and whistles. Zuca Pro Travel's cube-shaped bag has five zippered, colour-coded and removable drawers inside, and the aluminium alloy frame means the case does double time as a seat.

Victorinox has put eight wheels on its Spectra bag, making it extra manoeuvrable, while Rimowa has similar on its Salsa Air, a bag that also includes a telescopic handle that will lock at any height.

The Genius case could be for packing dummies - it has labelled compartments, a permanent checklist written on the lining, a battery pack for recharging devices, a speaker that can be connected to devices, and a dirty laundry compartment in the lining which compresses its contents. The bag even has a removable toiletries pack and an umbrella. The Visionair Podpal doesn't have all that, but it does have a tablet cradle built into its top. Not all luggage trends are about functionality. Porsche Design, for instance, maintains the stance that looks continue to matter. Its sleek leather French Classic case was voted best luggage 2013 by Travel + Leisure magazine, while the amazing Porsche Design Twin Bag has become a cult, covetable carry-on item for design-wise women. It's not just a gorgeous bag - its handles adjust from hand-to-shoulder bag, by sliding invisibly inside. JJ

CRUISING

Forget communal tables and allocated seating: it's all about how you deign to dine when you're all at sea. Crystal Cruises is one of many saying "no" to long buffet counters, replacing them with "food islands" and more tables for two. Private dining is also on the rise, with Seabourn's large verandahs set up to encourage private alfresco dining while Princess Cruises' newest ship, the Royal Princess, features a new Chef's Table Lumiere, sectioned off by a curtain of light around a glass table in one of its dining rooms.

On-board spas are larger and more glamorous, with more facilities and treatments. Expect couples retreats, cabanas, indoor-outdoor spaces and capitalisation on those ocean views. The Seabourn small ships' spas top the range, coming in at more than 1000 square metres, with thermal suites, herbal baths and walk pools. Its four new penthouse spa suites are connected to the main spa by a dramatic spiral staircase and come with a spa concierge, because we all need a spa concierge.

We've also seen the rise of all-suite ships, with more private verandahs - up to 95 per cent of Silversea's new Silver Spirit has verandahs. Adjoining staterooms and two-bedroom penthouses are another in-demand feature, in response to the increase of families of up to three generations taking to the seas together. P&O's popular Pacific Pearl and Pacific Dawn were refitted with adjoining rooms last year: expect to see more adults-only pools, most likely adjoining the spa, and a rise in single cabins. In fact, the first single balcony cabins are now on the market as more solo cruisers hit the seas, without paying a costly single supplement. BJ

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