The jewels of the Orient-Express

January 2021

Exception / Gestures

In 2011, in an effort to preserve the rich heritage of the railway system and the art of travel set in motion by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (The International Company of Sleeping Cars), France’s national railway group, the SNCF, bought seven historic cars built in the 1920s and entrusted its subsidiary Orient Express with their complete restoration. They put the design in the hands of exceptional artisans.


Photographer : Lola Hakimian

Armchairs for the bum

24; this is the number of seats in car n°451 Etoile du Nord. This Pullman car features a main lounge and two 4-seater spaces at each end. Built in 1929 by the Entreprises Industrielles Charentaises d’Aytré, its decoration – including walls paneled in burr birch from Norway and inlaid with exotic marquetry – was entrusted to René Prou.


“Large. Comfortable and straight, but never too inclined.” That is the secret to passenger comfort according to Jean-Pierre Besse. Equipped with foam springs, just like in the 1920s, the winged armchairs are covered with the same Art Deco-style fabric as they were a century ago, woven in England and making sure to meet fire-resistant standards. “These are works that immerse themselves in the history of legends of French heritage. They are the armchairs dreams are made of: 9 out of 10 people who enter our showroom want to sit down right away in the Orient-Express’ armchairs”.


The artisans of the Manufacture Besse, who have been making stylish furniture since 1979 and restoring the great Louis XIII classics to Art Deco seating, were tasked with making replicas of the original armchairs. Settled in the heart of the Meuse valley, surrounded by the wood of the great Vosges forests, the Manufacture Besse’s founder Jean-Pierre Besse has joined forces with his son. The two complement each other with the perfect blend of savoir-faire and rigor. Together, this father-son duo collaborates with influential architects, large luxury hotels, theaters like the Opéra Comique and major restaurants like Fouquet’s.


With plans and archival documents provided by the Orient-Express in hand, the duo was able to put together a stellar team for the job. A group of 15 male and female artisans came together for the more than 10 detailed steps leading up to the color matching of the armchair from wood cutting to sawing, planning, assembly, sanding, varnishing, patina and upholstery. Every detail was calculated and accomplished with a unique savoir-faire passed down from generation to generation. Their mission: to create identical duplicates of the originals, to make the old indistinguishable from the new.


Seating manufacturer Jean-Pierre Besse, Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant in Neufchâteau.

Couture lighting

3; this is the number of hours needed to make an Orient-Express lampshade. There are around 15 lampshades per car. The lamp’s outer material is either stretched, tight and slightly curved in the main cars or fully pleated in the restaurant cars and covered with a traditional pink color.


Summoned to reproduce and renovate the Art Deco lamps of the new Orient-Express cars, the Atelier Hugues Rambert, led by Philippe Rabane, put its fifteen seamstresses to work. Accustomed to collaborating with luxury brands like Baccarat, the Cristallerie Saint-Louis and the Ritz Paris, this interior design and restoration group showcase their artisanal prowess labeled Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant in workshops located in Vichy in the heart of Auvergne. They do everything exclusively by hand, the same as they have for the past 50 years.


Using identical models of train lamps, the seamstresses slipped the same silk used in the past into their hands, French threads from Saint-Etienne. After the first fabrics were cut, the stitching and assembly followed. Tightened directly on the lamp, the lampshade took shape before the final step: ‘le gallonage’ or braiding the metallic pieces into the fabric. With a bulb delicately screwed onto every lamp, a soft light illuminates the precious wood on each table.


“More than a simple accessory, the lampshade is a fashion accessory. Its success depends on the women’s savoir-faire and not on machines,” explains Philippe Rabane. “Our work has no limits. Custom-made lampshades allow us to consider all dimensions. Nothing can stop us. With Orient-Express, we have had the honor to be a part of the dreams of thousands of people who want to experience this legendary train just as it was before.”


Atelier Hugues Rambert, Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant.

Puzzle mastery

17 and 18; like the centuries that glorified marquetry. An art brought to light by master woodworkers, André-Charles Boulle, Riesener and Oeben, that went on to adorn the Orient-Express’ most beautiful cars, thanks in part to decorator René Prou.


A graduate of the Ecole Boulle school who trained with great masters of the discipline like Pierre Ramon and Gilbert Malcourant among others, Philippe Allemand created his own cabinetmaking workshop in 1985 in Issoire, Auvergne. He then worked with some of the greatest restaurants, institutions and personalities, all while sharing his precious knowledge with the inmates of the Issoire penitentiary center and with his son Grégoire. He passed down all the secrets and techniques of a discipline with less than 20 workshops in France today.


Entrusted to this lifelong craftsman, the 7 cars of the Orient-Express were stripped down one by one. The more than two year long project required all the woodwork and marquetry panels to be renovated or reproduced identically in the Issoire workshops. To recreate the original decor of the famous Blue Train – a marquetry of bouquets of flowers in silver sequins and roses in Lalique glass paste – the workshop put 5 craftsmen to the test non-stop. From the design office to the workshops of the woodworkers, marquetry experts and varnishers, the expert team joined forces for more than two years to complete their task.


“Marquetry requires both patience and science. Imagine a large puzzle where you have to build every piece yourself with the aim of showing a work of art that gives the impression that it has never been cut,” Philippe Allemand explained. “Knowing how rare their knowledge of this lost art is today, these father and son artisans are now working to keep marquetry alive. Their first Le Héron collection with its modern, fashionable design should certainly inspire new creative minds.


Atelier Philippe Allemand, Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant in Issoire.

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