Ruth Adler Schnee was born in 1923 to a cultured German-Jewish family who fled Nazi Germany soon after Kristalnacht and settled in Detroit, Michigan. Degrees from Rhode Island School of Design and Cranbrook Academy of Art (under the tutelage of Eliel Saarinen) and an internship in New York City with America’s “first industrial designer,” Raymond Loewy prepared Schnee for a career in design. But it was recognition won in a Chicago Tribune architecture competition that set her on her path as a textile designer. As a practicing interior and textile designer, Schnee has been the recipient of numerous
design awards and honors. Her friends and collaborators included Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Frank Lloyd Wright, Minoru Yamasaki and Buckminster Fuller among others. Along with her husband, Edward Schnee, she was an important figure in bringing the midcentury modernist movement to Michigan.
Schnee continues to support and advance the preservation of classic modernist architecture in Detroit. Since 1995, Schnee has been working with ANZEA Textiles to create new designs for woven upholstery fabric as well as to reissue, translate, and mass-produce her brightly colored, hand-printed archival fabric designs from the 40s and 50s. Now in her late 80s, Schnee continues to work as an interior space planner and textile designer.
In 1946, when Ruth Adler Schnee was an architecture student at Cranbrook, the Chicago Tribune held a competition. The challenge was to design a house that could accommodate new household gadgets developed during the war years. After having designed the house, Schnee couldn’t find textiles to cover the large glass areas that she had designed. “Traditional, drab cabbage rose designs were the only available textiles for domestic interiors. So I set out to design window coverings that felt appropriate for my modern concept.” An architect whose firm was designing automotive showrooms saw her drapery and said, “This is exactly what we need. Can you supply it?” Schnee replied, “There’s no way I can supply it! It’s in my imagination; it’s not on the market.” The firm gave Schnee a deposit and promptly set her up in the textile business. “VOILA! A new career was born.”
During her long career, Ruth Adler Schnee has had the opportunity to realize her designs in a variety of media — hand-printed silk screened fabrics, woven textiles and most recently note cards and wrapping paper. As she translates a pattern from one realm to another, Schnee uses the opportunity to rework, rethink and renew her design. She will often return to an initial source or an earlier pattern to “perfect it.” The evolution of Germination to Strata, to Strata Echo and later Stratum, is a wonderful example of this process. Schnee’s initial inspiration for Germination came from the landscapes she encountered on her 1948 honeymoon in Arizona and Colorado: “I had never seen The West. It was a life changing experience to view the red layers of soil against the vast blue western sky. The biomorphic shapes between the horizontal, stratified earthforms became seedpods.” Schnee’s 1948 hand-printed Germination design was converted by ICF/Unika Vaev into a woven textile in 1994. The work had a second life as it carried over into the design known as Strata.
Schnee revisited Germination in 1950, feeling that she had not done justice to the beauty she had witnessed in the American West. She simplified the pattern, using only the flowing horizontal furrows to create Strata. This new iteration won the prestigious International Celanese Corporation Award and the resulting publicity lifted the firm into the national limelight placing Adler / Schnee Designs among mid-century modern masters. Strata was a single color print for drapery — until one of Detroit’s foremost architects required two colors to complete a project. Strata Echo emerged when they shifted the screen position and printed in two colors. In 2008, Rhode Island School of Design commissioned alumna Schnee to develop wrapping paper. The pattern was reworked once again to create Stratum.
While this exhibit focuses mainly on her textile work, Ruth Adler Schnee’s contributions to
design are much broader reflecting her training and experience in a wide range of design disciplines. When she began her career in the mid 40s and early 50s, good design was a desirable commodity and Ruth Adler Schnee and her husband Eddie were energetic advocates. Driven by a vision to educate the American public, the Schnees promoted a modern sensibility in Detroit through lectures, commissions, exhibitions and conversations with customers about the beauty of the merchandise. Their shop, Adler/Schnee introduced an unparalleled range of modern furniture and housewares imported from Europe. In the basement studio, Ruth produced textiles and developed interior designs for commercial and private clients. The couple even became involved in urban design projects like the rejuvenation of Greektown in downtown Detroit. In1976, they were awarded the Keys to Detroit for their efforts on behalf of the city. Throughout her career, Schnee’s approach has been shaped by modernist idealism and a belief in the potential for renewal through design. “Design is a powerful and challenging tool that can better society” and therefore must be employed with precision and a sense of responsibility. Schnee articulates its value with conviction: “DESIGN is: the total order of all things made. It is achieved by creating an aesthetic unity of space, light, color, pattern and texture. It is the art of solving problems to make the connection between material concepts and a recognition of choice and constraints. It is the visual response to an environment, which can shape behavior and mood. It is the simple form that has eternal value of beauty and function.“