Nonagenarian Stands Out
At 91 Ruth Adler Schnee 45 IA says she’s happiest when working in her studio.
Earlier this year when the Michigan-based Kresge Foundation presented pioneering textiles designer Ruth Adler Schnee 45 IA with its 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist award, the 91-year-old designer happily accepted the accolade—while acknowledging that at this stage in her career she’s primarily pleased to still have the will and stamina to work.
Seventy years after she graduated from RISD, Schnee continues to work out of her suburban Detroit studio, designing custom fabrics for Knoll and Anzea Textiles. Her work has been exhibited in recent years at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, the 2011 Venice Biennale and the Detroit Institute of Arts. A 2012 documentary film—The Radiant Sun, directed by Terri Sarris and produced by Ronit Eisenbach BArch 85—tells her inspiring life story.
Born in Germany in 1923, Schnee fled the Holocaust with her parents in 1939 and landed in Detroit. Even before they had found jobs, she recalls, her parents took her to the Detroit Art Institute, continuing their unconditional, lifelong support of her interest in art and design.
When Schnee earned a full scholarship to study at RISD, she majored in Interior Architecture and subsequently went on to become the first woman to earn a graduate degree in architecture from Cranbrook Academy of Art. There she worked closely with the renowned Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, a proponent of the Art Deco aesthetic.
Unsure about how to break into the male-dominated world of architecture, Schnee stumbled upon textiles in 1946 when she entered (and won) a competition sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. “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,” the designer recalls. “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.”
Within a year of winning that competition, Schnee had launched her own interior design studio for custom textiles and was soon collaborating with a Who’s Who of mid-century modernist designers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Buckminster Fuller, George Nelson and Warren Platner. When she married Edward Schnee in 1948, she found a partner in life and business who helped market her work and run their successful home furnishings and artisanal objects studio for decades.
Inspired by art, nature and the world around her, Schnee has earned numerous awards for her designs over the decades, including a Condé Nast Prix de Paris (1945), the American Institute of Decorators Award for Printed Textiles (1947, 1948, 1957 and 1958) and the International Color Award from the American Institute of Architects (1979). The Kresge honor added a $50,000 cash prize and a monograph commemorating her life and ongoing work.
As for Schnee, she’s happy that the world eventually caught up with an aesthetic that always felt relevant and vibrant to her. “In those early days, nobody, but nobody, wanted modern design,” she has pointed out. “We had a terrible time convincing people that it’s wonderful.”
—photo by Elly Stewart
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