Alexandra Lange | Essays

Bad Taste True Confessions: Erté

Erté for Harper's Bazaar, November 1933 (via WikiPaintings)

Last week Allen Tan posted on guilty pleasures.
Look: coming clean about a guilty pleasure takes a strange mixture of vulnerability and defensiveness. You’re knowingly putting yourself up for tomato-throwing. And at the same time, it’s confusing to be enjoying this thing in spite of – you really don’t know why! – your otherwise perfect taste.
His short essay struck a chord for me. Not only does he quote the key passage in Daniel Mendelsohn's "A Critic's Manifesto,"  the paragraph that explains how the best criticism works, by explaining the critic's thought process and then leaving it up to you, but I have been meaning to 'fess up in this space for some time.

As my children grow into their own tastes, some quite different from mine, I have started to recall my own early design assertions. I respect my parents the more for supporting my questionable choices. When I declared, at 10, that I was done with Marimekko and wanted instead sheets with blue roses (blue roses!) my mom went with it, going so far as to embroider matching pillowcases with an eyelet ruffle. If you know the adult me or my mother, you know we never ruffle. But she never let on.

Erté, "The Ace of Spades" (via WikiPaintings)

My mother saved the pillowcases and I have them in my linen closet now. They go with nothing in my house, but I am saving them for another little girl who wants her princess fantasy in blue. Maybe it was Pinocchio that inspired me, but just try finding that on the monomanically pink-and-purple mass market.

What came after the blue roses is perhaps more embarrassing: I loved Erté. Or really I should say, I love Erté. Which makes the why of this love worth submitting to Tan's challenge: "Being able to pinpoint what’s good about your guilty pleasures lets you talk about them without feeling ashamed by the bad parts."

Who was Erté? Romain de Tirtoff (initials R.T.), Russian-born, French-trained designer of jewelry, costumes, sets and interiors. His Wikipedia entry offers some good taste connections to Aubrey Beardsley and Paul Poiret. He designed covers for Harper's Bazaar and costumes and sets for what must be a camp classic, The Restless Sex, a film starring Marion Davies and financed by her lover William Randolph Hearst.

Erté, X from "The Alphabet Suite" (via WikiPaintings)

All I knew about Erté was contained between the covers of Dover Publications' Fashion Drawings and Illustrations from Harper's Bazaar, a coloring book. I also had Erté Fashions. Clicking through Erte.com, what do I see that I still admire?

No. 1, the lines. The sinuous, mirrored line that turns up at every scale, from the jewelry to the drop-waist dresses (we'll be seeing a lot of these in Downton Abbey Season 3), from the covers to the movie sets. I remember trying to figure out how the sleeves in "Purity," below, worked as fabric. I remember trying to make my own Erté over and over again, choosing a theme, willing my hand to relax, to become soignée. It never worked. My fashion design remained resolutely two-dimensional (just like a Marimekko).

Erte, "Pearls" (via Erte.com)

No. 2, the themes. I love themes, color schemes, color coding, matchiness. The set of designs for gems, translating pearl into a certain kind of face and dress, intrigued me. It was thorough, in the same way a Wiener Werkstatte interior was thorough, every aspect of pearl considered and incorporated into different sizes of opalescent rounds. The designs retain the same interest as the costumes for the divertissements in The Nutcracker: How will this production interpret Coffee, Tea, Chocolate into a tutu? For the literal-minded child it was a way to see interpretation happening.

No. 3, the monochrome. At the same time I discovered Erté, I also discovered Aubrey Beardsley and Joseh Hoffmann. I was the weird kid who had a Beardsley poster in her (still silver-blue, no ruffles) high school bedroom. I liked to draw patterns. I liked grids. I liked certain kinds of black pens that laid the ink in a pool on the page. I tried calligraphy and Rapidograph drafting pens. The colored Erté doesn't wear as well for me as the graphic, mostly black-and-white designs.

Erté, "Purity" (via Herndon Fine Art)

Are there any other Erté fans out there willing to confess? Do you have another bad taste moment to share? The holidays can seem like a referendum on taste, from the white elephant party to the thrill of finding the perfect gift. You project your likes on to your family members as a consumer, and you also see yourself reflected in the things they choose. Even the cookies you bake. The sadness of the gift card is that it is neutral, a present from the land of "I have no idea what you like." For the designer, that seems a little like saying, "I have no idea who you are."

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Illustration, Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [5]

great post. I noticed about Erté writing my book Ikko Tanaka: Colour and Silence. In his youth, Ikko Tanaka admired Erté and was very influential. In those years, Tanaka became a close friend of Issey Miyake, too.

You can see about my book in http://imprint.printmag.com/color/tanaka-san-color-man/

Best from Buenos Aires,
Lucas López
Lucas López


On the guilty pleasure scale of 1 to 10, yours rates at about 2. Why wouldn't you love Erte--the examples you give are quite nice. I'd even wager that Erte haters will at least concede that his illustrations are interesting in some way. No, there should be no shame here...

Now if instead wrote that you hide your Anne Geddes coffee table books before your colleagues come over-- then we'd be getting somewhere! Maybe your taste is too good to have truly awful guilty pleasure.


There's nothing wrong with liking Erte. But it doesn't really make for an interesting essay if you reasons come down to "i love this" and "i love that." Seems like this would work better as a Pinterest pin or a tumblr post. I did however feel my hipster-dar tingling.
This both reminds me how the design world is split between the vintage camp and the modern camp. Vintage lovers try to top each other with the most obscure find, while modernists generally agree on principles. It also reminds me of a few quotes (from the NYTimes article about hipsters):
"The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism."
"Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, aesthetic and otherwise."
"Manifesting a nostalgia for times he never lived himself, this contemporary urban harlequin appropriates outmoded fashions"
"The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream."
Mike Lowe

OK, since no one here seems willing to gamely follow Ms. Lange's brave lead of exposing guilty pleasures, I'll (anonymously!) jump:

I like Rush.

The tortured time signatures, Geddy Lee's awful voice, the Randian yearning and not-quite-there concept albums - its shameful and repulsive, but yes, on occasion, I still listen, and when I hear those open F# major chords that lead into Hemispheres - and yes, I also love real concept albums like Fripp & Eno's Evening Star - it has particular associations about order, structure, and bludgeoning symbolism that still hold some appeal.

So look, I understand: to some, it will seem the musical equivalent of finding sublime architectural genius in, say, the late works of Charles Gwathmey (RIP Chuck...) but, dammit, we're talking guilty pleasures here, and its the holidays, and the inlaws are coming - what else have you got?

C'mon, isn't there someone out there who's still a Paolo Soleri fanatic? Or can recite deconstructionist theory with a straight face? Cards on the table people!

And here's to a wonderful 2013 for DO and all its contributors & readers.
Mr. Downer

I feel as though when we are young we begin to develop interests and tastes that grow over time and stay with us. The “bad” taste you are describing can be used as an example of this. Whether these tastes are good or bad it does not matter when it has been a taste that struck a chord with you and does not seem to change. It is personal to you and you see it as a reflection or even part of yourself. Like you said, you had “early design assertions” that cultivated continuously. For many people, there is an interest in their life that they discover and once it is discovered, it flourishes and does not leave. Then, when an individual sees this interest reflected in objects, articles, or designs, they attach it to that taste that has been long established. An instantaneous connection is made because it relates to you. Tastes do not easily change, and when they do, I think they end up taking a new form that then becomes developed instead. These interests play a major role in consumerism as well. They can easily be the determining factor in what we want, what we like, and what we buy. These assertions and even guilty pleasures, too can be powerful components of our decision making. This is why it does not matter whether others consider ourselves to have good or bad taste. And your confession of these bad tastes is confessed in the objects, drawings, and fabrics you have been drawn too. I had never heard of Erte, but now I am interested and will have to do some research.
Melinda McLean

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