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Who was Ruth Adler Schnee, and why am I writing about her?

Ruth was a textile designer in the mid-century who recently died at the fantastic age of 99. That is one reason to celebrate her. Another is her contribution to modern textile design. Ruth Adler Schnee was an emigre from Europe in the late ’30’s and went to Rhode Island School of Design and Cranbrook in Detroit. She settled in Detroit and opened a design firm concentrating on textiles and interior design work for clients. The rise of the automobile industry with its new emphasis on interior design for cars, fueled new technologies and materials for textiles. Schnee saw all this and was influenced by these trends. She created beautiful, fresh designs that were biomorphic and colorful.

Schnee worked to transition these unique designs into the new modern houses that were emerging. She collaborated with architects Buckminster Fuller, Paul Rudolph, and Minoru Yamasaki and with Saarinen at GM’s groundbreaking technical center near Detroit. Her work was fresh and daring and brought modern ideas to interior design.

Sadly, as compelling as these designs were, they did not sell well at the time. Too much color! Ornament is a crime! Most architects specified plain fabrics to show off their architectural details better. Many interior designers were using traditional textiles in interiors that were still naggingly provincial.

Schnee got a second chance in the late 1990’s and with me!

When I purchased my William Krisel-designed home in 1999, I was hunting for a fabric I could use to upholster a Dunbar sofa. Unika Vaev, a Swedish firm, had rediscovered Schnee a few years earlier and reissued several of her 1950s designs. I knew little to nothing about her (the internet was still small then), but I loved what I saw and chose a fabric she created in 1950 called Nosegay. Here was a 50-year-old pattern that was so fresh and modern to me because the design seemed like the patterns that atoms make but only when seen under an electron microscope. The colors were perfect and fit the mood of the modern Palm Springs house that I was putting together.

Chris menrad's couch with Ruth Schnee original atomic fabric print
My couch with Ruth Adler Schee’s textile print

Schnee went on to sign a contract with Knoll Textiles sometime later and produced new designs for them right up until shortly before her death. When Schnee created Nosegay and other beautiful patterns in those early years, she was making a statement about how shape, color, and texture could play a role within a modern space. She may have been ahead of her time, but 50 years later, it all came together in a little Palm Springs house.

Written by Chris Menrad

The New York Times Just wrote an article about her – Click here to view

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