Modern design pioneer Ruth Adler Schnee reflects on life, career | Ae


An artistic pioneer was born when Ruth’s mother Adler Schnee gave her a pencil and asked her to draw models of clothes herself.

She was 4 years old.

After the little girl imagined coats and dresses, her mother took her sketches to Paris, where every spring she went to look for a new wardrobe and brought the models to life. Her mother had studied calligraphy at the influential Bauhaus school of modern art in Germany and dated artist Paul Klee.

This is unusual information about an early preschooler, but Schnee, a 96-year-old little girl with cropped white hair, ignores it, as if all little kids maybe have the artistic means to create their own. own wardrobe.

“It was easy. It was my life.

Schnee, a mid-century modern design legend, moved from Detroit to Colorado Springs last year to be closer to her youngest of three children and three of seven grandchildren. The little lady with a huge chutzpah overcame two big hurdles – being a woman and a Jew – to make a name for herself in the textile world.

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Modern top designer Ruth Adler Schnee is shown with some of her textile designs.

The landscape of his life reads like a history book, with his family’s escape from the Holocaust and Schnee’s collaborations and friendships with a true who’s who of architecture and design, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Alexander Girard, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, Raymond Loewy, Minoru Yamasaki and Buckminster Fuller.

His work, along with that of Girard, Eames and others, is featured in the Denver Art Museum’s exhibit “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America”. It is until August 25.

“Although she was rejected by architectural firms, she never gave up – and managed to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and succeed as a designer,” said Deborah Lubera Kawsky, historian of art and author. “She is the only one who remains to tell the story of this great era.”

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A photo taken before the Holocaust shows Ruth Adler Schnee (left front row) and her family. Several members of his family were killed during the Holocaust.

The beginnings of a designer

Tucked away in a gorgeous crocheted sweater of cranberry, raspberry and electric blue, Schnee perches on a couch in her crisp white living room in a retirement community. Her furniture hasn’t arrived from Michigan yet, so she gets by with the nice but stuffy furnishings in the building. He misses the personality of his condo in Detroit; she decorated it herself, of course. His first order of business when he arrived in Springs was to request that the large column separating the kitchen from the living room be painted with a happy pumpkin. His life’s work, after all, can be defined by eschewing traditional design and seeking out bold colors and patterns of geometric and abstract shapes, often inspired by the natural landscape.

“You just have to look at things. Everything is designed, ”said Schnee. “My biggest criticism of American education is that schools don’t teach kids to look and see things, because design is all around us. Just go out and watch.

Perhaps Schnee’s stubbornness in her career was acquired by osmosis from her mother, who managed to get her husband released from Dachau concentration camp while the family was still living in Frankfurt. They fled in 1939 after their home was destroyed during Crystal Night, November 9-10, 1938, when the Nazis attacked Jews and their property.

“Life in Germany was amazing,” said Schnee. “The Adler family has lived in Frankfurt since 1200, and we still have gravestones in the Jewish cemetery. We were in the same company for 500 years, then Hitler destroyed everything. “

His mother arranged for the family to emigrate to America, choosing Detroit because a cousin lived there. It was a happy accident, as Schnee took more root in art at Cass’ excellent technical high school. She later received a full scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied architecture and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1945.

She spent a summer working for Loewy, an industrial designer perhaps best known for the Studebaker. Although he did not hire women, Schnee worked alongside him on the Coca-Cola emblem and the Shell gas station logo with yellow and red scallops used by Royal Dutch Shell.

She designed an apartment at the Waldorf Astoria hotel while in New York City, and she met Minoru Yamasaki, who became a longtime friend and collaborator, before receiving a scholarship to the Cranbrook Academy of Art in 1946. , one of the best in the world. academies. She obtained a Masters of Fine Arts in Design, one of the first women to receive this degree.

After the trauma of World War II, an appetite for decoration, patterns and color emerged in the country. Schnee and other designers of the late 1940s and 1950s exploited this hunger.

“She was in the right place at the right time, around the right people and in the right environment,” said Darrin Alfred, co-curator of the DAM exhibition. “His designs were like many other textile designs at the time: very attractive, abstract and figurative, whimsical and playful. There was a lovely nature to them. She balances everyday influences and the degrees to which she has abstracted them.

She met Edward Schnee, her husband of 52 years, through a family friend. “I thought he was wonderful. He was a graduate of Yale and had a wonderful sense of humor. They opened Adler-Schnee, a modern design and home furnishings store in Detroit. The problem? No one bought his items.

During a visit with the Eames, iconic husband and wife industrial designers, Edward told them that he and his wife loved what they were doing and their ability to educate the public about modern design, but sales were on point. dead.

“(Charles) Eames said, ‘If it’s designed well, it will sell,'” Kawsky said. “Ruth is still laughing. She said: ‘No one told us it would take 50 years.’ “

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Ruth Adler Schnee’s designs have been featured in House & Garden magazine.

Succeed in business

Ruth’s life is a tapestry of juicy anecdotes. The Chicago Tribune “Better Homes for Better Living” competition earned him an honorable mention for his design of a modern home. Subsequently, a company that designed auto showrooms asked to produce their designs. She didn’t know how to make textiles, she told them, so they offered her money to learn.

“She’s resilient, and when she gets the chance to do something, she’s determined and goes through with it,” Kawsky said. “She learned screen printing on her own and started producing textiles.

Then she worked with Wright on the historic Affleck House in Michigan.

“He didn’t like women interfering with his work,” said Ruth. “But I found out that when you explained to him why you don’t like those dark little rooms he designed, he listened. And he made changes.

This is not the case with Yamasaki. “I walked out of one of his meetings in tears because he was absolutely ruthless. It was not just my job, but the work of anyone who suggested certain design changes.

Nonetheless, she gets on with the American architect, who designed the original World Trade Center in New York. Ruth worked with him on the project, specifying interior finishing materials for the lobby.

“When that plane hit this building, I was hysterical. I will never forget him.

She and Yamasaki also worked together in a gynecology clinic while she was pregnant with her youngest. After three pregnancies, she was all too familiar with the experience of lying on an examination table watching the pipes. To liven things up, she suggested using gravid bird wallpaper on the ceiling.

“And Yamasaki had a seizure,” she said. “He said, ‘Absolutely not.’ The doctors followed what the architect said, not what I said. But years later, I met one of the doctors and he said, “We built another clinic on the east side of Detroit and we used the birds. And the birds were such a hit. The women called us and thanked us for putting something interesting on the ceiling.

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Ruth Adler Schnee started designing clothes at the age of 4. Her mother took the models to Paris and had them made for her. A photo of her when she was young shows her wearing a coat she had designed.

To be a woman

Being one of the only women in her field, her contributions are remarkable. Even after being turned down from architecture jobs, she refused to give up, Kawsky said. And she always said yes to any opportunity.

“She wasn’t afraid to stand up to some of the designers and do what she thinks is her right,” Kawsky said.

Of course, the reserved artist sweeps away his ability to persevere despite the hindsight of men.

“I ignored him. I really think I got along with them. It was not a problem.

Ruth’s productivity continued into her later decades. In her 80s much of her work was reissued and she was commissioned by KnollTextiles and Anzea Textiles to create custom fabrics. She stopped working just before she got to Springs, but when asked if she was going to recover, she said “Probably.”

“With her bold colors, patterns and textiles, she is known to be a trailblazer in bringing this to the American public,” Kawsky said. “The fact that they are still reissued today shows that they have a timeless quality. “

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