Bella Neyman’s article on modernism on the Orient Express in the Spring issue of Modern magazine is a triumph. We have come to expect well-written and painstakingly researched articles from Modern; informed and informative. In this respect, it entirely fits the bill. But, of course, it’s also an excellent editorial choice providing a satisfyingly voyeuristic glimpse into an age of bygone luxury and grandeur.
As design historian Bella Nyman points out in the article, those who think of the Orient Express tend to linger on its luxury and mystique rather than as a shining example of twentieth century design excellence. Well, one could hardly fault anyone for considering the Orient Express as a pinnacle of luxury. But what is great about Nyman’s approach is that she seeks to reconsider the famed train (or should we say ‘trains’?) from the perspective of craftsmanship and as the result of very particular design movements from which it was born at a particular time in history. In this respect, the article’s key focus is the radical face lift that the train underwent in the 1920’s rather on its original nineteenth century format.
René Prou’s exquisite interiors and cabins of the world’s most luxurious train are a delight without equal and all the more so for the light that Bella Neyman sheds on Prou’s equally esteemed collaborators such as René Lalique who designed a number of special fittings for the famed train operator. But, as Nyman also takes pains to point out in her article, the 1920’s modernist refit of the train was a truly international affair with many renowned British companies contributing splendidly appointed carriages and not purely the domain of French Art Deco as one might assume given all the popular mythology surrounding the Orient Express.
The carriages considered in the article show an opulent restraint that is drawn more from the earlier 1920’s Art Deco style rather than the sleeker, more streamlined style that some of its key designers would embrace in the 1930s. Perhaps this intrinsically lends itself to the more melodramatic mythology surrounding the train, as if the pungent luxury of the train itself might have somehow played a role in our effectively being blind to the unique value of each of its individual design achievements.
Fortunately, Bella Nyman’s article redresses this imbalance with much fascinating detail and insight on many of these individuals gems, all mixed up with interesting anecdotes and asides that deserve to be read in the original rather than recounted here.
And for those who would prefer to live the life rather than read about it, it’s worth noting that the photos accompanying the article are of the lovingly restored 1920’s carriages that saw the Orient Express return resplendent in more recent decades. For diehard enthusiasts prepared to pay for it, all one needs to do it pay the price of the ticket.