The Kresge Foundation announced Thursday that Ruth Adler Schnee, pioneering designer of modernist textiles, will be its Eminent Artist for 2015.
The coveted honor, given to just one artist a year, comes with a $50,000 prize and no strings attached.
"Ruth Adler Schnee is among the select group of Detroiters who have helped shape an international design sensibility," said Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson, who notes the 91-year-old's success in what was once a completely male-dominated field.
"There's an exemplary sweep to her life and career," he added, "and we owe it to ourselves to celebrate it."
Schnee, who has pieces at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Detroit Institute of Arts, was among the very first American designers to apply modernist abstraction to fabric and textiles. But locally, the Southfield resident is probably best known for Adler-Schnee, the store she and her husband launched in 1948 that introduced generations of Detroiters to modernist home furnishings.
"Talk to Metro Detroiters," said Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum and a member of the jury that selected Schnee, "and they'll say that's where they learned about modern design."
Schnee fled Nazi Germany for Detroit with her parents in 1938 when she was a teenager. Textile design was not her first choice, but a pragmatic compromise after she couldn't land an architecture job despite degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design and Cranbrook Academy of Art, plus a stint working with celebrated industrial designer Raymond Loewy.
"Architecture offices didn't hire you if you were a woman," Schnee said. "That's how I got started in textiles. I had to make a living."
Schnee's elegant, abstract forms — often drawn from nature — impressed architects including Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki and Frank Lloyd Wright, all of whom gave her work. Indeed, Schnee had a hand in some of the most important buildings of the era, from Warren's GM Tech Center to the World Trade Center in New York.
But for years her textiles were a hard sell to a public still leery of modernism, particularly in home furnishings. "Everything was French Provincial and cabbage roses," Schnee said. "Nobody wanted contemporary designs."
So she and her late husband, Edward, crafted a Plan B, founding Adler-Schnee in 1948 to supplement income from her design business. The interior-design store, in Harmonie Park until its sale in 1979, was for many years a lonely, modernist outpost.
"I just remember the shock of walking in — it was so different from anything I'd known," said Marsha Miro, art critic and co-founder of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. "It was very elegant and classically modern. She had a great eye."
One factor in choosing Schnee for the Kresge award, Wittkopp said, is that she's still working to this day. Indeed, she recently signed a 20-year contract with the celebrated design firm Knoll International.
The unlikeliness of it all delights Schnee, who can't help but laugh.
"I said to them, 'Do you have any idea how old I am?' They said that didn't matter."