show

Alexandra Lange

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: Art, Design History, Fashion , Film + Video, Graphic Design, Illustration, Magazines, Popular Culture, Theory + Criticism

Comment 4  |     |     |   Like 16  |   Tweet 33
Alexandra Lange Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

MORE
Comments [4]
Alexandra,
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
12.19.12
03:13

Alexandra,

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.

Jerome
Jerome
12.19.12
08:11

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
12.20.12
04:51

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
12.20.12
07:51



Creative Opportunities
  • Twitter Facebook Google+
    Tumblr Pinterest RSS

    Design Observer
    social media à la carte
  • Newsletter signup

  • Design Jobs
    Observer Jobs Spotlight




Places Journal
Mail Chimp