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March 2003

Ruth Adler Schnee: A Life in Design-Design from Life
The Henry Ford recently added five printed textiles to its collections that date to about 1950. Made by designer Ruth Adler Schnee of Detroit, these pieces of cloth embody the Modern Aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century. They are printed with flattened, abstracted natural forms in bold, bright colors.

MORE Ruth Adler Schnee: A Life in Design-Design from Life


Fancy Freee
Fancy Free, c. 1950

Country Fair
Country Fair

Seedy weeds
Seedy Weeds

Exhibit Catalog
Exhibit Catalog
click to enlarge
Ruth Adler Schnee in her Southfield,
Michigan studio, c. 2000

These furnishings fabrics remain vibrant today, decades after their creation. Just as intriguing as the textiles is Ruth Adler Schnee’s life story. She was a refugee from Nazi Germany thrust into a new life in America. Fifty years ago, she succeeded as a female designer in her own right in a world that is still male-dominated. She forged a successful career while raising three children with her husband Edward Schnee. Ruth Adler Schnee maintains a successful design practice and is as passionate about her career as any recent graduate.

Ruth Adler Schnee's life is as extraordinary as her creations. She was born Ruth Adler in Frankfurt in May, 1923. She showed a talent for art at an early age, drawing interiors when other children could muster only crude figures, and received early training from family friend, artist Paul Klee.

The Adler home was largely destroyed on Kristallnacht in November 1938, the night that Nazis attacked synagogues and Jewish homes and institutions. Household possessions were pieced back together and the family shipped them to the United States knowing they would have to flee Germany to ensure their safety. They settled in Detroit when Ruth was fifteen.

And so a life in design in the United States began. The young refugee won a full scholarship to Rhode Island School of Design in 1942. In 1945, she won the "Prix de Paris" for her work but it was unthinkable to send a young, Jewish woman to Europe at that time. Instead, this 22 year-old studied with the great industrial designer Raymond Loewy (one of few women in the office) in New York City. She returned to Michigan and received a graduate degree from Cranbrook Academy of Art, working with Eliel Saarinen, among others. Ruth found her soulmate, Edward Schnee, a Yale graduate in Economics and married him. Their extraordinary partnership resulted in the textiles you see on this page and three children who remain proud of their parents' accomplishments.

Ruth had designed drapes as part of her submission to a house design contest after the war. These designs caught the eye of car dealers who wanted her bold, big, simple designs for the plate-glass windows of new dealerships under construction. The dealers asked her to produce drapes for them, and Ruth and Eddie agreed. Thus, the company Adler Schnee was born in Detroit. Ruth designed her dramatic textiles and Eddie, the Yale graduate, cut the screens and printed them.

Ruth took her designs from the life she saw around her. Pins and Needles was inspired by her sewing basket. Country Fair reflects Ruth’s impressions of the Mexican mercados she saw on a trip to Mexico. She found abstracted designs in a patch of weeds, flights of birds, the layers of sedimentary rocks, stacks of cordwood, or railroad tracks. Good quality fabrics were tough to get after the second World War, so she occasionally used tailor's interlining, with its coarser feel and sturdy weave, for her fabrics, as seen in this detail of Seedy Weeds (at left).

Inventive and whimsical, Ruth Adler Schnee’s designs were gaining a following. In 1951, her textiles were included in an exhibit of modern craftwork at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Ruth and Eddie (with help from the children) ran Adler Schnee, a store that sold home furnishings of modern design. Ruth worked on important commissions. She collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on the Ford Rotunda (Detroit) in 1952-53 and Minoru Yamasaki in specifying the interior treatments for the World Trade Center in New York City (1970-77). Today, she designs building interiors and creates new woven textiles for Anzea in her studio in Southfield, Michigan.

Ruth Adler Schnee has been called a Detroit Treasure. That’s true. But she’s an American legacy as well, having been acknowledged by the Archives of American Art. She might say that design is everywhere we look--if we look we just might see it. We'd argue, however, that it takes Ruth Adler Schnee’s extraordinary eye and uniquely talented hand to turn those patterns of life into timeless art.

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-- Nancy Villa Bryk, Curator



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