Well-known textile designer Schnee makes Springs her part-time home
By Robin Intemann
In the world of contemporary textile design, Ruth Adler Schnee is considered a rock star, a role model and a pioneer.
These aren’t appellations she necessarily embraces because she’s comfortable simply being a designer. Yet, there’s no denying the impact she’s had on the field.
Schnee is the recipient of the 2015 Kresge Eminent Artist Award, is the subject of a 2013 documentary about her life as a textile artist and has shown her work in the 2011 Venice Biennale, among other exhibitions. Her designs have garnered awards from the Museum of Modern Art and the American Institute of Decorators. She continues to design for KnollTextiles and Anzea.
The diminutive, humble and quick-to-smile 95-year-old exudes enthusiasm when discussing her passion for design. She is in Colorado Springs for her third extended visit. She said family, weather and the arts scene are reasons enough to consider possibly staying here permanently; although, she has ongoing projects in her adoptive home state of Michigan.
“Colorado Springs is wonderful,” she said. “I love it here.” She also loves keeping busy, whether it be crocheting, designing textiles, working on a book or preparing for exhibits of her internationally-acclaimed work. “I’ve always enjoyed whatever I am doing,” she explained.
She started designing as a 5 year old living in Frankfurt, Germany, before World War II.
“I designed my own clothes,” she said. “My mother would take my sketches to Paris and have my dresses made.”
She conceded this may have been extraordinary, but quickly added it was an apt description of her parents, particularly her mother, a member of the Bauhaus movement.
The Adler family left Germany in 1938 following Kristallnacht, when Nazi soldiers attacked Jews and destroyed their property.
“We went directly to Detroit,” Schnee said.
There she studied art before receiving scholarships to study at the Rhode Island School of Design and later the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Several of Schnee’s pieces will be included in an exhibit at the Denver Art Museum opening in May entitled “Serious Play: Design in Midcentury America.” Farther afoot is the retrospective of her work at Detroit’s Cranbrook Museum.
“The whole museum will feature my work,” she said. “It’s a wonderful honor for me.”
Her ties to Cranbrook are strong; it’s not only where she earned her MFA, but several of her textiles are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
In addition to the too-long-to-compile catalog of awards, is an equally impressive list of architects, artists and designers with whom she worked through the years: Paul Klee, Frank Lloyd Wright, Minorou Yamasaki, Warren Platner and Charles Eames, among others.
“Frank Lloyd Wright hated working with women,” she said, “but when you explained why you envisioned a certain design, he accepted it.”
The transition from architect to textile designer came about in 1946 after winning a Chicago Tribune residential design competition.
“I designed the fabrics for that house, which was a modern house. In those days you couldn’t find any contemporary fabrics. They weren’t on the market. Not many people were doing fabric design.”
Despite that award, as she transitioned to textiles, success was slow. She designed while Edward, her late husband of 52 years, ran the business side of Adler-Schnee and Associates.
“Nobody wanted what we were doing. I wish Eddie was still alive now that there is such an interest in contemporary design,” she said.
Although the accolades and the financial security have come with time, Schnee creates out of sheer joy inspired by the world around her. She said, “Everything around us is a design: the leaves, the branches, the grasses.” This appreciation and her love of color are the trademarks of her design.
“I love colors that are bright and happy,” she said. “I think a lot of people are afraid of color.”
For anyone who thinks they’re too old or not talented, Schnee offered encouragement, “Just look around. I think there is a design in everything, no question. It’s wrong to stop something or not start because of an excuse. People should just think of something they really love to do and go ahead and do it. That’s how I operate.”