Opinion

Ruth Adler Schnee, Exuberant Designer of Modernist Textiles, Dies at 99

Ruth Adler Schnee, whose ebullient fabric designs and avant-garde home furnishings store in the heart of Detroit introduced midcentury modernism to baffled and delighted Midwesterners — and who lived and worked long enough to have her work celebrated by a new generation of critics and design enthusiasts — died on Jan. 5 at her home in Colorado Springs. She was 99.

Her death was announced by her son Daniel.

“Can’t a cooking spoon have a beautiful shape?” asked a radio advertisement that Ms. Adler Schnee and her husband and business partner, Edward Schnee, crafted to tempt a wary public into their store, Adler Schnee. The store was a bright, glassy space showcasing Ms. Adler Schnee’s boldly colored textiles, along with furniture by their friends Florence Knoll, Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen and George Nelson — and, later, Scandinavian designs from Marimekko, Dansk and Orrefors — all of which was at first a mystery to a public used to French provincial furniture and flowery chintzes. As she recalled one confused customer declaring early on, “Oh, you’re modern. I thought you were contemporary.”

It was a hard slog in the beginning: A glass teapot from the Bauhaus school took 15 years to sell. When the Eameses’ color-blocked Masonite storage unit — now a design classic — was sneered at by customers, the couple moved it to the store’s bathroom to store toilet paper, Ms. Adler Schnee noted in 2002 in an oral history interview conducted by her daughter, Anita, for the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

So suspicious was the establishment of this strange new aesthetic that in the early 1950s, when the couple asked their friend Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who would go on to design the World Trade Center, to design a modernist house with a print workshop for Ms. Adler Schnee, no bank would offer them a mortgage.

Ms. Adler Schnee worked both with well-known architects and with numerous private clients — like the family for whom she created this space-age interior in San Diego in 1962.Credit…Cranbrook Archives

The couple didn’t just sell these odd new objects; they wanted to teach people how to live with them. They held lunches to show off how to cook on the weird-looking Japanese barbecues they were carrying called hibachis; held workshops to introduce Finnish table settings; and published brochures with catchy titles like No More Glaring Mistakes (a tutorial on lighting), Flatware Facts and Pick Your Pots Pensively.

“Everyone thought we were crazy,” Mr. Schnee told The Detroit Free Press in 1994. “Nobody wanted this crazy stuff.”

“It was like walking into the future,” Marsha Miro, the longtime art critic of The Free Press, said in a phone interview. “It was a revelation.”

Detroit was a half-hour away from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Arguably the birthplace of midcentury modernism, the academy was founded as an experimental art colony and run like a freewheeling art lab by Eliel Saarinen (father of Eero), who designed its exquisite campus. Its long, glittering roster of graduates includes Ms. Knoll, the Eameses (who met there), Harry Bertoia and Ms. Adler Schnee.

Though her own work as a textile designer would become a touchstone of the era, along with the designs of Alexander Girard, Jack Lenor Larsen and others, she had not planned on designing in that medium. She had hoped to be an interior architect, and when, while still at Cranbrook, she won a competition from The Chicago Tribune to design a modern house, her entry was a glass and steel box with enormous windows, for which she sketched draperies with an abstract pattern she made up on the spot.

The competition generated a lot of buzz, and an architectural firm got in touch to ask her for the curtain designs for the car showrooms they were working on. “We can’t use cabbage roses with those new car designs,” she recalled being told, to which she replied, “Those designs are just a figment of my imagination; they’re not on the market.”

She taught herself how to silk-screen and set up a studio. But it wasn’t until she met Mr. Schnee, who was newly graduated from Yale with a degree in economics, that the printing operation was able to expand.

“I fell in love with Ruth and her designs simultaneously,” he told The Detroit Free Press in 1985. “It took one meeting — about two hours — she was a bombshell.”

Ms. Adler Schnee drew inspiration from both the natural and built worlds for her abstract designs. This pattern, called Construction, and printed on bleached linen, came out in 1950.Credit…PD Rearick
Seedy Weeds, from 1953, was inspired by Ms. Adler Schnee’s garden. Edward Schnee, her husband, named her designs.Credit…PD Rearick
Fission Chips, a 1957 design by Ms. Adler Schnee, was reissued by Knoll in 2012. In late 2011, when she was 88, the company offered her a 20-year contract. Credit…PD Rearick

They married in 1948 and opened their store within a few months.

Their partnership was rare for the time: She was the designer, and he was the detail guy who ran the printing operation and the business. He named all her textiles — monikers like Pins and Needles, Fission Chips and Seedy Weeds — for which she found inspiration in both the natural and built worlds; her garden, the lit windows of skyscrapers, railroad yards and construction sites all made their way into her designs. She dressed as boldly as her designs, favoring rich colors like red, fuchsia and orange.

It was a moment when textiles went from being merely decorative to being a medium for contemporary design, and she was a pioneer of that crossover. Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, which showed a retrospective of Ms. Adler Schnee’s work in the fall of 2019, said in a phone interview that she was “one of the more important textile designers of midcentury modernism.”

Ms. Adler Schnee was also a sought-after residential and commercial interior designer who worked with architects like Mr. Yamasaki, Paul Rudolph, Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, as well as numerous private clients. Over her long career, she designed department stores, restaurants, health care facilities and even a Roman Catholic chapel. (The design store closed in 1977.)

The architecture and design critic Alexandra Lange, in a phone interview, described the postwar milieu in which female designers like Ms. Adler Schnee were remaking the American home.

“All these modern houses were being built, and people needed modern fabrics and furniture to put in them,” Ms. Lange said. “The architecture profession was still prejudiced against women, and the areas where they were allowed to thrive were textiles and interior design — areas which, in theory, catered to women and in which they were believed to have some innate talent.”

Ruth Adler, the only daughter of Joseph and Marie (Salomon) Adler, was born on May 13, 1923, in Frankfurt, Germany, and grew up in Düsseldorf. Her father’s family had an antiquarian bookstore, where he worked for a time before becoming a real estate investor. Her mother was artistic; she had studied painting at the Hans Hoffman School in Munich and calligraphy at the Bauhaus School in Weimar. Paul Klee was among the artists in the Adlers’ social circle.

The family’s comfortable, cultured life ended, as so many did, in the fall of 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws deprived Jewish citizens of their rights. In 1938, two days after their apartment and belongings were destroyed by the state-sanctioned mob that ransacked Jewish homes on what became known as the night of broken glass, or Kristallnacht, their father was taken to Dachau, the Nazis’ first concentration camp. Surprisingly, he was released after a few months — tens of thousands would be murdered there — arriving home half-starved and with all his teeth knocked out.

A few days later, the Adlers were able to leave Germany, sponsored by a family in New York City and with a job promised to Jacob in Detroit. As they left Düsseldorf by train, Ruth began a diary: “Germany lies in back of us,” she wrote. “Can it really be true? Is one recognized again as a human being?”

Ms. Adler Schnee in 2019, the year the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., presented a retrospective of her work.Credit…Sarah Blanchette

Once they had settled in Detroit, Joseph’s hoped-for job did not pan out, and the whole family went to work; Joseph worked in a nursery, Marie in a mattress factory. Ruth worked in a bakery, and her brother Charles sold newspapers.

Her parents hoped she would enter diplomatic service, but Ruth wanted to be an artist. She studied interior architecture on a scholarship at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 1945, and went to work briefly in Manhattan for Raymond Loewy, the influential French-born industrial designer, before earning a fellowship at Cranbrook. She graduated with an M.F.A. in 1946.

In addition to her son Daniel and her daughter, Ms. Adler Schnee is survived by another son, Jeremiah, as well as seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 2000.

When midcentury modernism began its long, slow revival in the early 1990s, Ms. Adler Schnee found herself again in the limelight, included in retrospectives like “Design 1935-1965: What Modern Was,” an exhibition that toured the country in 1991 and 1992, and in the permanent collections of the Chicago Institute of Art and, later, the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Mich. “I’ve become an antique in my lifetime,” she remembered telling her husband.

In 2015, the Kresge Foundation honored her with its annual Eminent Artist Award, with comes with a $50,000 prize. A few years earlier, at age 88, she had signed a 20-year contract with Knoll.

“I said to them, ‘Do you have any idea how old I am?’” she told The Detroit Free Press. “They said that didn’t matter.”

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