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Ruth Adler Schnee’s modern textile designs come to Sangre de Cristo Arts Center

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COURTESY SANGRE DE CRISTO ARTS CENTER
  • Courtesy Sangre de Cristo Arts Center
I ask 94-year-old modernist designer Ruth Adler Schnee what makes her designs timeless; why textile companies (specifically Knoll and Anzea) still produce and sell patterns like the ones she created in the ’40s; why galleries across the U.S. like the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo host exhibitions of her work. Her answer: a laugh. “I think it’s luck,” she tells me.

Adler Schnee has not always been so fortunate. Her family was forced to flee their home in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1938, shortly after Kristallnacht, and they came to Detroit with nothing. Adler Schnee was just a teenager at the time, but a driven one, and she quickly carved a space for herself in her new home.

Adler Schne’s passion for art and design was nurtured by her mother (who studied at the
Bauhaus, a bastion of modern art in Europe) and her former neighbor, painter Paul Klee. But breaking into the business of architecture, her first love, proved difficult.

Architects didn’t welcome women into their ranks in those days. In spite of Schnee’s accomplishments, including being the first woman to receive a graduate degree in architecture from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and winning a Chicago Tribune residential design competition in 1946, she encountered closed doors wherever she went. Textile design offered a more accessible entrance into the industry, and even now she says she thinks of her designs as “architectural projects,” always considering how they will work within a room.

But Adler Schnee’s textiles, with their bright colors and eye-catching shapes, took a long time to become popular.
“These designs [were created] in the ’40s and ’50s,” she says. “They’re 60, 70, 80 years old, but when I designed them, nobody wanted them.”

She and her late husband Edward sold modern home furnishings in Detroit between the late ’40s and mid-’70s, and are often credited for bringing modern design to the Midwest, but she says that she and her colleagues always had trouble selling their fabrics.

For that, we can partly thank the architects who were most prevalent at the time, including those with whom Adler Schnee worked (big names such as Minoru Yamasaki and Frank Lloyd Wright). They didn’t promote modern design, and certainly not fabrics, choosing instead to focus on “the space.”

But looking at samples of her textiles now — such as the geometric, bright purple “Cadenza” (inspired by music notes) or the delicate lines and squares that echo streets and buildings titled “My Neighborhood” — I find that I can’t envision a world that wouldn’t embrace them.

Despite what Adler Schnee says, I doubt it was luck that led to the relatively recent acceptance of modern design. Her patterns are timeless, and their recognition feels well deserved.

“Thank goodness I lived long enough,” she says with a smile. “... It was very difficult to convince people that the simplicity of things is beautiful.”

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