There are many things Detroit and Michigan don’t get the proper credit for leading. One is design. From the iconic buildings in Detroit to automotive, furniture, clothing and interior designs, our state is the epicenter for global design. We have the talent here and we’ve had it for years.
One of the artists who helped put us on the map is Ruth Alder Schnee. Her work in textiles, which spans more than seven decades, elevated Michigan’s stature in modern design and architecture. This year, at 91, she was selected as the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist for her work in abstract textiles and designs, which have been an integral part of personal, commercial and civic spaces in the post-World War II era.
Born Ruth Adler in 1923, Schnee’s passion for art started early. Her parents loved art, music and design and instilled that same passion in her. As a child she played with mobiles on the floor of family friend artist Paul Klee’s studio and drew detailed interiors as a pass time in her childhood home in Düsseldorf, Germany.
That innocent childhood came crashing down in 1938 when the Adlers were to flee their native Germany after their home was destroyed in the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom against Jewish homes and institutions.
They may have lost almost everything material but the family held on to its love of art as they settled in Detroit.
“We came to Detroit without a job or money, and before looking for a job my parents took us to the Detroit art institute,” Schnee said.
That love of art became part of Schnee’s DNA and has been her career, passion and reward throughout her life. This year, at 91, she was selected as 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist.
“It all began in Detroit with trips to the DIA and at Cass Technical High School.
“I simply blossomed when I got to Cass,” Schnee says, “because it was my love. … I just went wild.”
That love and talent won her a full four-year scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design. After a stint in New York she returned to Michigan on a one-year fellowship to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills and became the first woman to earn a graduate degree in architecture.
“The competition was to design a house encompassing all the modern gadgets that were designed during the war but had just come on the market,” Schnee says. “My house was designed in glass and steel with large open spaces in the Mies van der Rohe style, but I could not find fabrics to fit the house. Everything on the market was French provincial. So I designed my own drapery fabric.”
She decided to go into business and opened a storefront on 12th Street in Detroit. There she displayed and sold a small selection of furniture and wares by such esteemed modernists as George Nelson, Warren Platner and Frank Lloyd Wright, all major architects and designers of mid-century modernism.
When she married Edward Schnee, a graduate of the Yale School of Economics, they moved to a larger space on Puritan Street and officially launched the Adler-Schnee store. It was one of the first stores in the United States to sell modern furniture, fabrics and home furnishings to the public – everything from cooking utensils to unique art objects.
After a fire at the store, they moved the store to Livernois Avenue. It was not initially successful. People in those days preferred the mass market styles sold in department stores.
“We just couldn’t earn a living in the early days,” she says, “but I was inspired by art and nature. It’s a simple thing, but true.”
Slowly but surely things got better. The artistic objects sold at Adler-Schnee began to show up in kitchens and living rooms across metro Detroit and across the nation and her work became well known. From living rooms, fitting rooms and hospital rooms to museums, showrooms and skyscrapers, her textiles began to appear in the most intimate and the most iconic settings.
She worked on the General Motors Technical Center in Warren (1950-55), on the World Trade Center (1970-77), and on the update of Albert Kahn’s Ford Rotunda in Dearborn (1952-53).
Today you can see her textiles at The Henry Ford, the Art Institute of Chicago, Cranbrook Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts and other institutions. Last year her work was showcased at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, “Designing Home: Jews and Midcentury Modernism.” The solo exhibition “Ruth Adler Schnee: A Passion for Color,” was shown in conjunction with the 2011 Venice Biennale.
A documentary film, “The Radiant Sun: Designer Ruth Adler Schnee,” was released in 2012 (see the trailer below). In addition, the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art houses an extensive oral history interview done with her daughter, Anita, in 2002.
“As an immigrant who launched an influential business in Detroit, as a woman who broke through barriers in a male-dominated field, as a Detroiter who helped shape an international sensibility, her story speaks to the value of inclusiveness, to the entrepreneurial spirit and to the profound role the arts play in nurturing our souls,” says Rip Rapson, Kresge president and chief executive officer.
At 91, Schnee continues to work most of the year from her studio in Southfield. She still designs custom fabrics for KnollTextiles, where she holds a 20-year contract, and with Anzea Textiles, an upholstery company.
“I do the work because I love it,” she says. “And now to be recognized that my work has some quality to it, it’s very exciting to me. It’s incredible.”
She believes the best lesson to learn about creativity is being observant.
“You have to look at things, see things,” she says. “Everything around us is a design that can be put on paper. As a design: the simpler, the better.”
That philosophy made Schnee a pioneer in defining the modern look of architectural interiors and in redefining postwar America’s sense of public space, Rapson says. It also made her a pioneer in making Detroit and Michigan the epicenter of global design.