At 96, interior design pioneer Ruth Adler Schnee is feted with a Cranbrook Art Museum exhibit featuring her acclaimed projects.
Featured photo courtesy of Suzanne Blanchette
Textile artist and interior designer Ruth Adler Schnee, at 96, is fulfilling a 20-year work contract signed shortly after she turned 91. At the request of Knoll Textiles, headquartered in Pennsylvania, Schnee has reimagined earlier projects and developed a new one.
Attention to Schnee’s lengthy and diverse career, until recently based in Michigan, returned her to the area for the opening of an exhibit spotlighting her acclaimed projects. The Cranbrook Art Museum is showcasing, now through March 20, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living.
It will be joined by two other exhibits, In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969 (through March 8) and Christy Matson: Crossings (through March 15). Together, the three explore crafts and the innovative artists and teaching methods that shaped the field.
“I love color, and I have fun working with it,” Schnee told the JN in 2002, when she was living in Southfield and preparing for another exhibit. “I think of my designs as a blend of modern and classical elements inspired by my surroundings.”
Schnee, who moved to Colorado to be closer to one of her three children and grandchildren, is being represented by some 80 textiles and other items that open her world to the public. Prestigious presenters, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, hold her work in their permanent collections.
“We’re showing a number of textiles she’s donated to the Cranbrook Art Museum over the years and also a number that she’s been really generous to loan to us,” says curator Ian Gabriel Wilson, Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections fellow at the museum.
The arrangement of the exhibit and the book that goes with it, holding photos and archival drawings, place Schnee in a historical continuum that demonstrates how she contributed to the look and feel of the mid-century modern interior.
Schnee worked with famous architects such as Albert Kahn, Minoru Yamasaki and Louis DesRosiers and brought her talents to projects that involved General Motors and Ford. Raised in a Jewish family that fled Hitler’s Germany, she brought her feelings of religious heritage into work for Temple Israel, Tempe Kol Ami and senior apartments in West Bloomfield.
“Ruth was really trained as an architect and wanted to become one, but due to the field in 1946, when she graduated from Cranbrook, that opportunity wasn’t available to her because of her status as a woman,” Wilson explains about Schnee, who studied fashion design at Cass Technical High School and interior architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design before receiving a master’s degree in design at Cranbrook.
“She fell into textile design by chance. She designed a house for a competition but couldn’t find any draperies she thought were modern enough, so she drew her own into the design. A couple of architects saw those designs and desperately wanted them for an automotive showroom they were building. They offered her an advance, and she started designing and producing herself.”
For a time, she and her late husband, Edward, ran a Detroit-based business that brought her concepts into homes and commercial centers. Their store was among the first in the country to sell modern furniture and fabrics.
Schnee received the Kresge Eminent Artist Award, Woman of Arts Lifetime Achievement Award and American Institute of Architects’ International Color Award among other recognition. She is the subject of the documentary The Radiant Sun: Designer Ruth Adler Schnee, which will be shown at the museum to go along with the exhibit.
“Design brings order to the world by creating an aesthetic unity of space, light, color, texture and pattern,” Schnee has told the JN. “As a designer, I never wanted to see what the market would bear. I have tried, instead, to find the best possible expressions of beauty and function.”
Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living will be on view through March 20 at the Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills. $6-$10; free for ArtMembers and children 12 and younger. (248) 645-3320. cranbrookart museum.org.