Designing Mind

By Ilene Denton Photography by Lori Sax June 1, 2009

The leading textile designer of the mid-20th century, Ruth Adler Schnee is still designing residential projects at 86, with clients in Detroit, Mich., and on Longboat Key, where she’s wintered since the 1990s. Adler Schnee collaborated with many of the modern design icons of the post-war period, George Nelson, Buckminster Fuller, Isamu Noguchi and Raymond Loewy among them. Her bold, bright, abstract fabric designs recently came to the attention of textile manufacturer Anzea, which has reissued several in a collection called Designs Worth Repeating. Adler Schnee has received many awards over her 60-year career, including a Lifetime Achievement in the Arts awards from Cooper Hewitt Museum. Her work was the focus of an exhibit, A Life in Design, this spring at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts.


What brought you to Sarasota?


A number of architectural projects. There are an awful lot of Detroiters settling here in the Longboat Key area who knew my work and are loyal clients. You are inspired by nature, musical rhythms and modern artists such as Paul Klee, who was a family friend. How does wintering in Florida inspire your design? If you open your eyes, [nature] is all around us here; I’m just taken by it. You’ll see in my designs very definite inspirations from palm trees, from birds in flight. My Funhouse design was inspired by the waves that come onshore and bring all the shells. And your use of color? I have always loved bright colors. I find them uplifting. They give you a sense of well being, and the colors are so clear here. In Michigan we have many gray days. Here it is just sparkling. Do you have a studio here? I work out of the apartment that I rent, which overlooks the Gulf of Mexico; it’s just marvelous. At home I have a very large studio. It’s the entire lower level of my condo and it opens to a garden area. How did the Anzea collaboration come about? Anzea specializes in fabrics so sturdy that they’re used for auditorium and sports stadium seating and in hotel lobbies. I had an exhibit in New York at the IBM lobby; my work was hanging between Dali and Picasso, and Anzea thought I was important, so they contacted me and said we’d like to utilize your designs in our upholstery weaves. I had created them in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. They absolutely did not sell at that time. They were too modern; everyone was into cabbage roses and French provincial. It’s funny; my late husband, Eddie, and I went out to California to meet Ray and Charles Eames. And Charles told us, ‘Don’t worry, if it’s good design it will sell.’ He just didn’t tell us it would take 50 years."

What’s next?

Light Touch Here’s a bright idea for your next beach barbecue: cordless outdoor light sticks in a rainbow of colors that rival the sunset. They use energy-efficient, one-watt LED bulbs that last 100,000 hours and are powered by just three AAA batteries. Plant them in the sand and let the beach party begin.

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