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2015 Kresge Eminent Artist: Ruth Adler Schnee

Groundbreaking textile artist Ruth Adler Schnee has been named the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist. Schnee joins six other artists who, since 2008, have received the Kresge Eminent Artist award recognition of professional achievements, contributions to metropolitan Detroit’s cultural community and dedication to Detroit and its residents. The award includes a $50,000 prize, and the creation of a monograph commemorating the artist’s life and work.

Past winners are visual artist Charles McGee, master jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, poet and playwright Bill Harris, poet and publisher Naomi Long Madgett, composer and Michigan Opera Theatre artistic director David DiChiera and photographer Bill Rauhauser.

The 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist was selected by the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council, a volunteer group of leaders in the metropolitan Detroit cultural community.

Escape to Detroit

Schnee was born Ruth Adler in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1923. Her family soon after moved to Düsseldorf. Schnee’s parents exposed her to art, music and design early, as evidenced in the detailed drawings of interiors she made as a child. An accomplished artist in her own right, Schnee’s mother studied calligraphy at the influential Bauhaus school of design. The artist Paul Klee was a family friend, and as a child Ruth spent many days playing with mobiles on the floor of his studio. The Adler home was decorated with an eclectic array of contemporary and traditional art and furniture.

That home was destroyed – and with it any sense of a future for the Adlers in Germany – in the Nazis’ Kristallnacht pogrom against Jewish homes and institutions in November 1938. The family salvaged what it could and the following year fled to the United States, settling in Detroit. In the interview with her daughter, Schnee recalls the central role that art played in her upbringing: “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 studied art at Cass Technical High School. “I simply blossomed when I got to Cass,” she says, “because it was my love. … I just went wild.”

In 1942, she was awarded a full four-year scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). While there she traveled to Harvard to attend lectures by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, who was head of the architecture school there.


Ruth Adler Schnee with “Slits and Slats,” 1947. Photograph courtesy of Anzea Fabrics.

Ruth Adler Schnee, “Germination,” designed 1948.
Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of the Artist. Photograph © Ruth Adler Schnee, Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum.

Ruth Adler Schnee, “Construction,” designed 1950. Photograph courtesy of Collection of Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Inspired by planned and organized neighborhoods such as Levitown, NY the first mass-produced suburb built for returning service men, considered an archetype for modern suburbia and the “American Dream.”
Ruth Adler Schnee, “Semaphore,” designed 1950-51.
Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of the Artist. Photograph © Ruth Adler Schnee, Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum.
Ruth Adler Schnee, “Backgammon,” designed 1950-51.
Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of the Artist. Photograph © Ruth Adler Schnee, Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum.
Ruth Adler Schnee, “Wireworks,” designed 1961-63.
Collection of Cranbrook Art Museum, Gift of the Artist. Photograph © Ruth Adler Schnee, Courtesy of Cranbrook Art Museum.
Ruth Adler Schnee, “Wireworks,” designed c. 1961-1963. Photograph courtesy of Anzea Fabrics.
Ruth Adler Schnee, “Rock Candy,” designed c. 2007. Photograph courtesy of Anzea Fabrics.
Ruth Adler Schnee, Sketch for “Rock Candy,” designed c. 2007. Photograph © Ruth Adler Schnee, Courtesy of Anzea Fabrics.

After graduating from RISD, she worked in New York with the renowned industrial designer Raymond Loewy. In 1945, Schnee returned to Michigan on a one-year fellowship to attend Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, where she was the first woman to earn a graduate degree in architecture. Eliel Saarinen, department head and Schnee’s mentor, instilled the importance of entering competitions as a means to establishing a noteworthy career. Winning a Chicago Tribune residential design competition in 1946 launched Schnee’s career in custom fabric design.

“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 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.”

That work, the foundation of her textiles to come, led to commissions from the architecture firm Shaw, Ness & Murphy, which was designing automotive showrooms.

A self-taught silkscreen printer, Schnee established an interior design and printing studio for custom textiles in 1947, occupying a storefront space on 12th Street in Detroit. She worked with such clients as future shopping mall magnate Alfred Taubman and her friend, architect Louis Redstone, while displaying and selling a small selection of furniture and wares by esteemed modernist colleagues. Other collaborators included George Nelson, Warren Platner and Frank Lloyd Wright, all major architects and designers of midcentury modernism.

The following year she met and married Edward Schnee, a graduate of the Yale School of Economics, who became a lifelong partner in business. Together, they moved to a larger space on Puritan Street and officially launched a retail establishment, the Adler-Schnee store. It was one of the first 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 to Livernois Avenue across from University of Detroit, enticed by the proximity to the university’s architecture program, and then downtown to the historic Hemmeter Building in Detroit’s Harmonie Park. The store and name were sold in 1977, and the couple continued to work as interior design and space consultants under the name Schnee & Schnee. Throughout her career, Schnee has credited her husband for not only his business savvy, but also for his creativity and insight that found its way inside her art.

“…I was inspired by art and nature. It’s a simple thing, but true.”

She claims it was Edward, for instance, who had the brilliantly simple idea early on to give each of her fabrics a friendly name referencing its inspiration: thus the likes of “Pins and Needles,” “Country Fair” and “Lazy Leaves.” Schnee was one of the modernists whose work can never be called cold.

Customers were slow to respond, however, preferring the mass market styles sold in department stores. Still, Schnee was dedicated to her ideas and continued production; her husband found deep satisfaction at the store, educating the public about fresh, independent design that included work by craftsmen the couple discovered while visiting friends in Mexico.

“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.”

Even if sales began slowly, the artisanal objects sold at Adler-Schnee became more common in kitchens and living rooms across the metro area. The store represented a portal through which art education entered urban and suburban households – and the Schnees were the teachers.

Schnee says she still believes that one of the best lessons to learn about creativity is the importance of being observant. The everyday environment is a wellspring that nourished her career. She continues to impart one piece of advice: “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.”

Photo of Ruth Adler Schnee by Elly Stewart.

For more information about Ruth Adler Schnee:

Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art

439px-Smithsonian_Institution_-_Archives_of_American_Art_logo.svgIn 2002, Ruth’s daugher Anita Schnee conducted an extensive oral history interview with her mother.  A transcript of the interview is housed in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art and is available online.



The Edward and Ruth Schnee Papers

Ad cover2The Cranbrook Archives is a collection of architectural records, photographic images, audio-visual materials, oral histories, and publications relevant to all aspects of Cranbrook’s rich history.  The Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee papers features a collection of documents, photographs, letters and ephemera covering Ruth’s childhood in Germany, the Schnee retail business shared with her husband Edward Schnee, and her design work from her days as a student to her recent work with textile manufactures like Anzea. Visit the Archives.


Press Release announcing the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist

kresge-logo-stacked-grayVisit the Kresge Foundation website for the official press release announcing the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist.




Kresge Arts in Detroit website

square2For more information on Ruth Adler Schnee and the 2015 Eminent Artist Award, please visit www.kresgeartsindetroit.org.

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