Designer Ruth Adler Schnee helped define mid-century modernism

Designer Ruth Adler Schnee helped define mid-century modernism

Written by Anya Ventura, CNN

In November 1938, when Ruth Adler Schnee was 15 years old, Nazi soldiers smashed the windows of his family home in Dusseldorf, Germany. They hinged the doors wide open, shattered Limoges porcelain and threw Biedermeier furniture out the window, as part of a violent campaign against Jewish families in the Holocaust prologue.

Adler Schnee’s parents had ties to art and literature – his father, Joseph, ran an antiquarian bookshop while his mother Marie studied in the iconic Bauhaus design school – and among the ruined objects there was a Paul Signac’s watercolor that the Nazis had worked into pieces. The Adlers were not home at the time, and when they returned everything had been destroyed. They collected the pieces of Signac’s painting and later restored it, although it was never the same.

Adler Schnee, who has become a pioneer in mid-century textile and interior design, is now 96 years old. He still owns the watercolor Signac: a lesson of objects on resilience. “It is worth nothing as if it were intact,” he said an oral history directed for Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 2002. “However, it really is much more important to me because of what happened.”
Adler Schnee's living room design for the Rosenthal residence, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1961

Adler Schnee’s living room design for the Rosenthal residence, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, 1961

The designer was the recent subject of the retrospective “Ruth Adler Schnee: modern designs for living“at the Cranbrook Museum of Art in Michigan. During his 70 years of career, Adler Schnee has become famous for the colorful and abstract fabrics and interiors that he designed for architects including Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. If the work of Adler Schnee did not work “which has been recognized for the recognition it deserves, perhaps due to the fact that textile design and the” work of women “of the decorative arts in the broad sense have long been relegated to the margins of art history . Although her male colleagues have been widely celebrated for their contribution to 20th century design, Adler Schnee’s story highlights how a woman helped shape the aesthetic revolution known as mid-century modernism.

Early difficulties

Adler Schnee was creative from a young age. Modernist artist Paul Klee was a close family friend and spent time with his younger brother in Klee’s studio, playing with his colorful cellphones and stabiles. “I think it was really the beginning,” he said of his interest in design during a 2013 speech at the Cranbrook Performing Arts Center.

As a teenager, he risked jail for sneaking into the notorious 1937 Munich Degenerate Art Exhibition, organized by the Nazi party to show what they perceived as the decay of the time. Wearing a large brown fur hat as a disguise, Adler Schnee was immediately carried away by the bright color of artists such as Oskar Kokoschka, George Grosz and Wassily Kandinsky.

Already the Adlers were experiencing the constant tightening of restrictions on Jewish life. Not being able to enter Christian stores anymore, the family relied on the nanny to leave the groceries at night. In the winter of 1939, Joseph was sent to the Dachau concentration camp. He was miraculously released after Marie’s incessant petition, and returned to his hungry family, without shoes and without his front teeth. In a few days the family began preparations to flee to the United States. The rest of the extended family would die in Lodz and Auschwitz.

“Do you recognize yourself as a human again? Oh, it’s too good to be a reality,” wrote the teenager Adler Schnee in his diary crossing the French border. When the Adlers finally arrived in Detroit, where Joseph had been promised a job that had never materialized, Marie sewed mattresses in a factory while the family made lampshades at night.

Ruth Adler Schnee works with designs for slots and splints and pits and pods.

Ruth Adler Schnee works with designs for slots and splints and pits and pods.

Adler Schnee worked the night shift in a bakery, going to school for an hour at the local art school. His ambition was concentrated and intense. After winning a scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design to study interior architecture – a field with few Jews or women – he continued to work for industrial designer Raymond Loewy, the designer of Studebaker cars. In 1946, she left her New York office to attend the Cranbrook Academy of Art, where she became one of the first women to receive a design degree from Michigan’s elite program who had also studied Ray and Charles Eames. According to the exhibition catalog “Modern Designs for Living”, after graduation, she tried to find a job in Albert Kahn’s office and was told “they weren’t running a beauty shop”.

A modernist vision

Adler Schnee turned his attention to fabrics in 1947 while looking for award-winning interior curtains that he had designed for a competition sponsored by The Chicago Tribune. He could only find antiseptic flowers that seemed to belong to an unfashionable past. Influenced by the fluid and biomorphic forms of Alexander Calder, Henry Moore and Isamu Noguchi, she began to create her own fabrics with bold abstract motifs. He exalted with bright colors and minimal and organic shapes. “A design doesn’t just have to talk, it has to sing,” he said.

In the same year she founded her textile studio and met Eddie Schnee, a Yale graduate who studied economics and fell in love with her and her fabrics. He became her husband, her business partner and her most fervent cheerleader. (Adler Schnee recalled during the 2013 Cranbrook speech that Eddie liked to say “Ruth is my hobby” when asked about his pastimes.)

The couple opened a colorful studio and a homeware store together in 1949. While Adler Schnee continued to design fabrics and interior spaces, Adler-Schnee Associates brought the best of modernist design to the Midwest market: Rosenthal white porcelain, Copco glazes , Marimekko fashion and folk art from Mexico and South America. Eventually they moved to the first floor of a department store in downtown Detroit, their business became an epicenter in the city for cutting-edge design. When most companies, especially in the wake of the racial riots of the 1960s, left the city, Adler-Schnee attracted the crowd with inventive inventions.

The Schnees were not content to simply sell works by important designers, but they also sought to educate the public about the beauty and practical elegance of everyday objects. Visiting the shop had to be indoctrinated in modernist ethics, its simple simplicity of form.

“Can’t a kitchen spoon have a nice shape?” Adler Schnee asked, recalling the script of one of the store’s radio spots in the Smithsonian’s oral history. “The wide broom can be bright and cheerful in color and feel good with your hand.” Their vision was not always convincing: an Eames storage unit, after failing the sale, was finally exiled from the showroom to store toilet paper.

In the end, Adler Schee believed that good design should combine model, color and texture within functionality. “If this has been accomplished, it will never go out of style,” he told Dwell in 2018.

It is a column that he has also applied to his works, from his lyrical fabrics to his elegant internal compositions. Despite having endured one of the most horrible periods of the 20th century, his work has always exuded a brightness, a love of color and shape and a joy for its material. Find beauty in its circumstances: a design that sings.


  1. Confused about whether Ruth is a man or a woman – you keep referring to “he”, or “him”.

    Don’t believe they had cell phones at that time.

    Where are the images?

    PS what’s Scottish about your website, exactly?


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