There’s plenty of Michigan icons to celebrate during the ongoingDetroit Modernism Week — and you’re definitely familiar with their work, if not all their names. There’s industrial architect Albert Khan, responsible for the Packard Plant, Belle Isle Aquarium and dozens of other buildings. Mies van der Rohe designed an entire neighborhood, creating Lafayette Park on the razed site of Black Bottom. World Trade Center designer Minoru Yamasaki’s style stands out on Wayne State University’s campus. Charles and Ray Eames cemented Cranbrook’s legacy as a national incubator for the modernism movement — and they designed furniture that’s still iconic.
A little lesser known, but still influential, Ruth Adler Schnee wasn’t responsible for any of the buildings on Detroit’s skyline. Instead, she put her mark on interiors around southeast Michigan, and lent her winsome style to groundbreaking and lively textile designs. Here’s the 411.
A DETROIT DESIGN EDUCATION
Born in 1923, Adler Schnee fled Nazi Germany and settled in Detroit in the mid ‘30s. She attended Cass Technical High School in the city, went to Rhode Island School of Design for her undergrad and was one of the first women to earn a master’s degree in design from Cranbrook Art Academy. But she struggled to break into the male-dominated architecture field. “We don’t want a beauty shop,” one local firm reportedly told her.
BREAKING THE GLASS CEILING
“I am not a believer that women can’t break the ‘glass ceiling,’” Adler Schnee told writer Sue Levytsky for an essay in a monograph of her work. “I really strongly believe if women do a good job and they are talented and they are dependable, they will get ahead. Chauvinism has never stopped me. The wheel of modernism has come full circle and I couldn’t be happier.”
AN ORIGINAL STYLE
Adler Schnee taught herself to silkscreen and started creating textiles when she couldn’t find any she liked for her modernist kitchen entry in a Chicago competition. Her winning design led a firm to hire her to create draperies for auto showrooms. From there, she collaborated on interiors for architects including Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright and Yamasaki.
It was still a battle to win popular interest in her abstract prints, when many interiors designers stuck with more traditional patterns and modernists shied away from shapes and colors that could distract from their raw materials.
Adler Schnee drew inspiration from the world around her, from snowflakes to railroads. She works with bright colors because they’re “uplifting,” and give people “ a feeling of well-being,” she told writerR.F. Levine for an essay in a monograph of her work.
BRINGING CONTEMPORARY STYLE TO DETROITERS
The designer married husband Ed Schnee in 1948. He gave her patterns playful names like “Fission Chips” and “Strings and Things.” She opened a design studio on 12th Street in 1947, then a studio and showroom on Livernois’ Avenue of Fashion.
In 1964, they relocated their store to Harmonie Park, bringing avant-garde homewares to the downtown shopping crowd. Before closing shop in 1976, they organized a recurring art fair in the district and arranged concerts from members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
STILL DESIGNING AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Adler Schnee received plenty of accolades and exhibitions in her career, but worked for decades without much recognition. She’s gotten some long overdue attention in recent years, and received the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist award, which comes with a $50,000 prize.
In 2012, at the age of 89, she signed a 20-year contract with KnollTextiles to re-release a couple of her archival designs and create new ones.
“The creation of the design may take as long as two years,” Adler Schnee said in a 2014 lecture, adapted into an essay for her Kresge monograph. “It’s ready when it ‘sings’ to me. … My goal has always been to create aesthetic unity of pattern, color and texture and to address human needs of pleasure and economy. It is a search for perfection in all things, which will never go out of style.”
TAKE A CLOSER LOOK
Read more about Adler Schnee in the Kresge monograph of her work. Cranbrook has archival documents, photos and designs in its digital collections. She talks more about her contemporary process with Knoll, where her fabrics are also for sale. And a Henry Ford video gives a nice overview of how she shaped modernist interior design.
Need even more design? Check out the lineup of Detroit Modernism Week events through Sunday, from walking tours to a burlesque show.