Design Pioneer Celebrated in Venice
In 1942, when Ruth Adler Schnee 45 IA left Detroit to attend RISD, she took an overnight train on the New York-bound Wolverine line. On her train schedule, a warning alerted passengers to delays from trains carrying war materials or troops, which had the right of way. Schnee understood those warnings more than most. Born in Germany, she and her family had fled the Nazi regime in 1938. She was not yet a naturalized American, nor was she a German: In 1935, Hitler had stripped all Jews of citizenship.
“I was a nobody,” Schnee told her daughter in a 2002oral history interview housed at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.
This summer, with a solo exhibition that opened in conjunction with the2011 Venice Biennale and a documentary film on her life and career, Schnee’s pioneering designs as an artist and leading textile designer are being celebrated on a global stage.Ruth Adler Schnee: A Passion for Coloris co-curated by Ronit Eisenbach BArch 85, an architect and associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning& Preservation, where the exhibition and the accompanying film she co-produced premiered in 2009.Caterina Frisone, an Italian architect and professor, collaborated with Eisenbach on both the catalogue and the exhibition.
Sponsored in part by RISD, the current show runs through August 28 at the Venice Civic Museum’s Palazzo Mocenigo. The documentary, “The Radiant Sun: Designer Ruth Adler Schnee,” was directed by award-winning media artist Terri Sarris, a native of Michigan.
“The show and the film pay tribute to this important figure, exploring her life, her work and the challenges she faced as a woman designer,” says Eisenbach. “We met 10 years ago in Detroit, and I fell in love with Ruth and her designs. At 88, she is still designing and still inspiring others.”
The exhibition showcases the vibrant, abstracted forms that define Schnee’s design aesthetic, often inspired by forms she found in nature: weed-covered paths, layers of sediment, birds in flight. Other designs were inspired by the simplicity of a sewing basket or Schnee’s impressions of a traditional Mexican market. The large, breathtaking panels of handprinted fabrics and textiles, which occupy the ground floor of the 17th-century palazzo, are paired with sketches and quotes from the designer about her creative vision.
Schnee has long been hailed as a “Detroit Treasure;” at a time when few American architecture or design firms would hire Jews or women, she helped to bring mid-century modernism to Michigan. But her design legacy extends far beyond the Motor City. As a young mother of three, her circle of friends and collaborators includedCharles and Ray Eames, Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller and Minoru Yamasaki. One of her earliest influences growing up in Germany was a mentor and family friend, the Expressionist painterPaul Klee. And her commissions included interiors for the World Trade Center and the Ford Rotunda.
But Schnee’s work also included projects that reflected her experience as a woman in an almost exclusively male industry: While pregnant with one of her children, she designed interiors for the former Feld-Weisberg Clinic, a contemporary building named for her obstetrician at the time. “I had the idea of using whimsical figures on the ceiling, because I had to be lying on . . . those tables for the examinations, and I felt that one should have something fun to look at while one is being examined,” she says in her oral history.
The doctors vehemently opposed her idea, which called for wallpaper designs by illustratorSaul Steinberg. But Schnee insisted. “I was so convinced that that’s what I wanted [that] on our own, we paid for that Steinberg wallpaper. . . The reaction from the patients was unbelievable. I had calls morning, noon and night from women who had been examined thanking me for finally doing something wonderful to those rooms.”
A preservation advocate for Detroit’s Modernist history, Schnee continues to live and work in Michigan. Since 1995 she has collaborated with Anzea Textiles to create new designs for woven upholstery cloth and reissue her brightly colored handprinted lines from the 1940s and 1950s.