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Ruth Adler Schnee show at Cranbrook

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

At 96, Ruth Adler Schnee is still designing.

In 2015, the Kresge Eminent Artist whose pioneering abstract textiles played a key role in mid-century modern design signed a 20-year contract with KnollTextiles. Adler Schnee found it all deeply amusing.

"When they called," she told The Detroit News at the time, "I said, ‘Do you realize how old I am?’ They said that didn’t matter,"

As with the artist, so too with her art. It never seems to age.

Walk around the career retrospective, "Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living" at the Cranbrook Art Museum, and see if you don't agree that her designs from 50 years ago look as fresh and imaginative as if they were born yesterday. 

Ruth Adler Schnee's "Backgammon" from 1949 at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

"I’m especially enamored with her vintage designs," said Ian Gabriel Wilson, who curated the show and attributes part of their enduring appeal to the organic forms Adler Schnee incorporated. "There is something incredibly lively and charming about them. There’s this interesting combination of design precision as well as a loose approach."

 Born into a German Jewish family that managed to get out of Nazi Germany just after Kristallnacht, in Detroit Adler Schnee attended Cass Technical High School and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1946, she got an MFA in design from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. 

Adler Schnee caught the attention of architects nationwide the next year after she won an honorable mention in the Chicago Tribune's "Better Rooms for Better Living" competition. 

Ruth Adler Schnee brought a casual looseness to her fabric design, as with 1949's "Semaphore."

"I submitted a design," Adler Schnee said in 2015, "but I couldn’t find textiles. Everything was either French Provincial or cabbage rose. So I designed the fabrics myself. When my work was displayed at the Chicago Tribune, architects fell in love with the fabrics."

Word spread over the next decade. 

"Quite by accident I met the curator of Montreal's art museum," Adler Schnee said, "who loved my designs and brought them to the Chicago Art Institute in the late 1950s or early 1960s. They purchased a number of them."

She added, "I also had an exhibition at a wonderful New York gallery, where they had my work hanging between Picasso and Dali."

Adler Schnee initially dreamed of going into architecture, but couldn't get hired. 

"Ruth wanted to be an architect," Wilson said, "but at the time as a woman -- and a Jewish woman --  that was impossible. But she saw the architectural potential in fabrics, which she sold independently."

And thus a career was launched. 

Ruth Adler Schnee with Cranbrook Art Museum Director Andrew Blauvelt at the opening of her career retrospective, which will be up through Mar. 15.

Adler Schnee ended up designing fabrics for the Ford Rotunda, working with Buckminster Fuller who created the geodesic dome atop the Albert Kahn structure, as well as Alexander Girard, Minoru Yamasaki and Frank Lloyd Wright.

"Designs would take her a year or two to complete," Wilson added, who described a fierce, creative work ethic. "She would articulate and re-articulate an idea, and simplify it down to its most basic elements." Then, he added, "she'd often scrap it and start over."

Detroiters of a certain age, however, probably know Adler Schnee best for the modern-design store, Adler-Schnee, that she and her husband Edward Schnee founded in 1948 -- one of the very first modernist showrooms in the entire country.

The store started life in Adler Schnee's 12th Street studio, but ultimately moved downtown to Harmonie Park. 

A Charles Eames LCW chair from 1946 at the Cranbrook Art Museum in front of a 1949 photo of the Adler-Schnee modern-furniture showroom in Detroit.

A book drawn from the exhibition and published by the Cranbrook Art Museum, "Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living," is coming out in 2020 and can be ordered through the museum.

Paired with Adler Schnee's show at the museum are two other textile exhibitions, both well worth a look: "In the Vanguard: Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, 1950-1969" and "Christy Matson: Crossings" are up till Mar. 15 as well. 


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living'

Through Mar. 15

Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward, Bloomfield Hills

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sun.

$10 - adults, $8 - seniors, $6 - students with ID

(248) 645-3320