Q&A: Trailblazing Detroit Designer Ruth Adler Schnee

By Deborah Lubera Kawsky
Still working at 95, Ruth Adler Schnee reflects on the important names she’s known—Wright, Klee, Eames, Calder—and the equally important career she’s led.

Ruth Adler Schnee’s design journey spans the birth and resurgence of midcentury modernism. Born in Frankfurt in 1923, she comes from an intellectual Jewish family that escaped Nazism and settled in Detroit shortly after Kristallnacht. She trained in architectural design at several prestigious schools before launching a career in textiles, creating fabrics distinguished by vivid colors and abstract shapes. In Detroit she collaborated with such masters as Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen, Alexander Girard, Paul Rudolph, and Frank Lloyd Wright and promoted modern design at Adler-Schnee, the studio and housewares store she opened with her husband in 1949. After seven decades of work and numerous awards, the nonagenarian shows no signs of slowing. She continues to design for KnollTextiles and Anzea, and this winter she gave a lecture in Palm Springs on modernism’s ongoing evolution. 

Inspiration comes from "all around us," says Ruth Adler Schnee, "from stones to logs to leaves to snowflakes." In 2015, she received the Kresge Foundation's Eminent Artist award for lifetime achievement.

Inspiration comes from "all around us," says Ruth Adler Schnee, "from stones to logs to leaves to snowflakes." In 2015, she received the Kresge Foundation's Eminent Artist award for lifetime achievement.

Brilliant color is a hallmark of your aesthetic. Where does your love of color come from? 

My mother, Marie, studied calligraphy at the Weimar Bauhaus and with Hans Hofmann. When we lived in Dusseldorf, my parents’ Bauhaus friend, the painter Paul Klee, was persuaded to come to the Academy. He moved into our neighborhood. He moved into my life! 

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Her early textile designs, such as Nosegay (1950) show the influence of organic forms on her work and her signature use of bright colors. 

Her early textile designs, such as Nosegay (1950) show the influence of organic forms on her work and her signature use of bright colors. 

In 1939, you resettled in Detroit and went on to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 1945, you were one of the first women hired in the office of Raymond Loewy, famous for his designs for Coca Cola, Lucky Strike, and Exxon. How did you get that job?  

By winning the Condé Nast Prix de Paris competition. At that time, winners were not sent abroad, because it was during World War II, but we were offered important positions in New York City to further our careers. In the Loewy office, I worked with Minoru Yamasaki, who later commissioned me to specify the interior finishing materials for the original World Trade Center lobby.

Strings and Things (1954).

Strings and Things (1954).

During your time in New York, you were offered a fellowship from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. What was your reaction? 

At the time, wild horses could not have dragged me from New York to Bloomfield, Michigan. However, my parents’ persuasive phone calls—and the one-way train ticket they bought—convinced me to go. 

MoMA award-winning Seedy Weeds (1953).

MoMA award-winning Seedy Weeds (1953).

You became one of the first women to receive an MFA degree in architectural design from Cranbrook. Eliel Saarinen was the director at that time. What was it like to study under him? 

It was very difficult at first. I was not prepared for it. There was no direction. I was deposited into a studio and was told, "Create." Eliel Saarinen believed that "art and design cannot be taught—they must be learned." However, once I realized there were no limitations except those posed by myself, I produced. It was exhilarating to watch my work unfold.