Ruth Adler Schnee, iconic Southfield-based textile designer, dies at 99

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Ruth Adler Schnee, a Southfield-based textile designer who played a key role with her modernist designs in ushering in an entire movement to Michigan, died Thursday, just months shy of her 100th birthday. She was 99.

The iconic designer's career spanned more than seven decades and she was still working late into her 90s. In 2015, the Kresge Foundation named her its Eminent Artist.

Detroit’s design doyenne Ruth Adler Schnee fled Germany as a teen. The iconic designer is still creating textiles in her home studio.

"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 at the time, who noted that Schnee's success was in what was once a completely male-dominated field. "There's an exemplary sweep to her life and career."

The Cranbrook Educational Community mourned Schnee's death, saying in a statement Friday that she was "an innovator whose keen eye for creating contemporary designs shaped the look and feel of the midcentury modern movement."

“The life and legacy of Ruth Adler Schnee have long been celebrated at Cranbrook Academy of Art,” said Paul Sacaridiz, the Maxine and Stuart Frankel director of Cranbrook Academy of Art. “She was a designer who not only saw the beauty and color in the world but had the diligence and talent to translate her vision into designs that brightened the lives of millions throughout her lifetime and will continue to inspire generations for years to come.”

Art historian Deborah Lubera Kawsky said Schnee was a pioneer of modern design along with Charles and Ray Eames, Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen and others.

"While the loss is felt most deeply in Metro Detroit, where Ruth lived and worked for most of her 99 years, it is mitigated by a gratitude for the tremendous impact she had both within and beyond this community," Kawsky said in an email to The Detroit News.

Schnee, a Southfield resident, fled Nazi Germany for Detroit with her parents in 1938. She turned to textile design after she couldn't find a job in architecture, despite degrees from the Rhode Island School of Design and Cranbrook Academy of Art. Schnee was one of the first women to graduate from Cranbrook.

Famed designer Ruth Adler Schnee works with her iconic prints.

"Architecture offices didn't hire you if you were a woman," Schnee told The Detroit News in 2015. "That's how I got started in textiles. I had to make a living."

She was likely most known for the store she ran with her husband, Adler-Schnee, which they launched in 1948. Started to supplement income from her design business, the interior design store, which was located in Harmonie Park until its sale in 1979, was unusual for its modernist aesthetic. It introduced brands such as Marimekko, Dansk, Copco, Costa Boda, Orrefors and Artzberg to Detroit.

When she won the Kresge Award in 2015, Schnee couldn't help but laugh.

"I said to them, 'Do you have any idea how old I am?' They said that didn't matter," she said.

Andrew Blauvelt, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum, called Schnee a pioneer in a life and design. In 2019, the museum staged an original exhibition of Schnee's work exhibition "aimed to remedy the underrepresentation of Ruth’s pivotal role in the development of the American midcentury modern interior in design history," said Blauvelt in a statement Friday.

"Ruth was a pioneer in design and in life — escaping the anti-Semitism and fascism of WWII and building her business as a woman in America in the 1940s by developing her remarkable textile and interior designs and becoming a staunch advocate of modernism," he said.