The Fashions of Ruth Adler Schnee

Sometimes it seems there are infinite possible discoveries within a single archives collection. Such is the case with the Edward and Ruth Adler Schnee Papers. Just over a year ago I wrote about the Schnees’ long-running Detroit retail business, Adler/Schnee, but I knew then that story was only the tip of the iceberg.  

And so I was happy to find myself returning recently to one of my favorite collections in the Archives. Replacing materials that had been on loan to the Cranbrook Art Museum for their exhibit, Ruth Adler Schnee: Modern Designs for Living, I was once again struck by her achievements as a high school student at Cass Technical High School in Detroit from 1940-1942. In particular, her skill at fashion design. Maybe it was the months of hearing about sweatpants and Zoom shirts, but it was so refreshing to spend a few moments remembering what real fashion means. 

Ruth Adler Schnee illustration, circa 1941. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Before Ruth Adler Schnee made a name for herself in interior design, including her iconic textile designs, she was interested in becoming a fashion designer. Attending Cass Tech afforded Ruth the opportunity to nurture her natural artistic talents, which are clearly evident in drawings from her primary school days. And, she had already shown an affinity for fashion design—out of necessity, Ruth had already been designing her own clothes since she was a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Nazi Germany (her family emigrated in 1939).

Amongst other documents in her collection, the story of Ruth’s high school years and her passion for fashion are perhaps best captured in three notebooks. One of my favorite boxes in the collection holds nothing but pages from a notebook entitled Dress Design VI. Labeled “hours 1-4″ it is clearly a class project, and one for which Ruth received high marks. Divided into four parts (Machine Attachments, Illustrative Material, Drafting Problems, and Analysis of Dresses), the book includes drawings, pattern pieces (not to scale), paper mockups of mainly women’s sportswear designs, samples of sewing technique (actual fabric pinned to the page), textile identification pages (with real fabric samples), and an essay on silk. 

Sleeve Form page, in “Notes on the Draping of Garments,” Ruth Adler Schnee, circa 1942. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.
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Revel in the Clutter of Edward Fella’s 1972 Cranbrook Map

On the inside cover of the 1973/1975 Cranbrook Academy of Art Catalog is a hand-drawn, fold-out map of the campus. I’ve always liked this map, with its witty labels like “Brookside School for Little Kids” and “Another Famous Statue.”

Map of Cranbrook from 1973 Catalog by Edward Fella.jpg

Map of Cranbrook drawn by Edward Fella (CAA Design 1987), 1972. Printed on the inside cover of the 1973/1975 Cranbrook Academy of Art Course Catalog. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

On the top left, you’ll see “Athletic Fields (Detroit Lions practice here).” The map also documents the neighborhood: on the far right, “Houses of the Bloomfield Hills wealthy” and on the bottom left, “Used to be orchards here, now houses.” If you look nearby, you’ll see “Map drawn by Edward Fella 1972.”

There are other labels that help expand our understanding of Cranbrook in 1972. The Old Water Tower (a thorn in Saarinen’s side) is still standing, and Cranbrook House is listed as “Booth Estate, Cranbrook House, now Institute for Pastoral Studies.” There are still tennis courts where the New Studios and Middle School for Girls would be built. There’s no label for Saarinen House, instead, sandwiched between the “Foundry Studio,” “Architecture,” “Ceramics,” “Fabrics,” and “Metalsmithing” reads a label for “President’s House.” (Wallace Mitchell was the Academy’s president at the time). Although there are lots of cars and some people—I spy football players, an entrance guard, and a life guard—the only proper name I see is “McCoy Studio.” This makes sense: Ed Fella was a frequent collaborator with, and later a student of, Katherine and Michael McCoy.

Edward Fella is a native of Detroit who graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1957. There, he studied lettering, illustration, paste-up, and other commercial-art techniques. He went directly from high school into advertising work as a commercial artist, working primarily for automotive and health-care clients. He had a successful career in advertising for almost three decades in Detroit.

In the early 1970s, the period in which Fella drew our map, he was working on freelance work between more conventional assignments. These pieces were often whimsical collages of photocopied materials with hand drawing and lettering additions. In 1970, Fella met Katherine McCoy (future Artist-in-Residence at Cranbrook) at Designers & Partners, his employer, in downtown Detroit. As McCoy recalled to Design Traveler last year, “I interviewed with the senior design partner, Al Evans, who offered me a job that day and introduced me to Ed Fella as I left. I recall a 32-year-old Ed sitting at his drawing board smoking his usual cigarette in his studio space right by the studio’s front door. I was 25 and very impressed by his wall of books, stacks of magazines, and graphic ephemera pinned up everywhere.” She noted that Fella was “already a Detroit advertising design celebrity.”

McCoy only worked at Design & Partners one year, leaving in 1971 to head Cranbrook’s design department with her husband Michael. There, she would often invite Fella to present his work to students and offer critiques. As McCoy told the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), “If anyone is meant to be a student and teacher in a rigorous educational environment, it’s Ed Fella. He was a powerful influence on our students.” It would have been around this time Fella was commissioned to produce the Cranbrook map for the 1973/1975 course catalog.

Cranbrook Academy of Art Cover for 1973 Catalog by Katherine McCoy

Cover, 1973/1975 Cranbrook Academy of Art Course Catalog, designed by Katherine McCoy. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

After over a decade “hanging out” in the “hippie” and “loosely structured” atmosphere of Cranbrook (Fella’s words), in 1985 at the age of 47 Fella entered into the MFA program at Cranbrook. Although older than his fellow students (and his department heads), Fella didn’t view his years of professional practice as an advantage: “At Cranbrook, I really was fortunate to be in such an amazing class dynamic…I used to say, experience never trumps a great idea; a 20-year-old can have one as easily as a 40- year-old…and it was certainly the case in that class!” He immersed himself into the era’s discussions about the postmodern movement. At Cranbrook, he also studied photography with Carl Toth and attended discussions with architect Daniel Libeskind (meanwhile, Fella’s two daughters babysat Libeskind’s young children).

Throughout his career, Fella produced work for local art cooperatives and events, like the Detroit Focus Gallery, Detroit Artist Market, and Cranbrook. Over 100 of these posters were donated in 2012 to Cranbrook Art Museum. It is in the experimental nature of these posters where we can see how Fella perfected his art of distorting text and collaging high and low imagery.

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Practice and Preach and Theorize and Teach! Edward Fella, American, 2004. One-color, offset-print on bond paper, 17 x 11 in. Gift of the Artist, Courtesy of Cranbrook art Museum.

In 1987 Ed Fella left Michigan to begin teaching design at the California Institute of the Arts. He recently retired from the school after a long career of mentoring and producing experimental works of graphic design. In 2014, he was awarded Cranbrook Academy of Art’s Distinguished Alumni Award. You can read and see more about Fella’s life, work, and education here in this excellent biography by Design Traveler.

Fella’s 2007 AIGA medal biography summarizes Fella’s career as: “prodigiously mashing up low-culture sources with high-culture erudition, Fella’s work—perhaps more than that of any other contemporary designer—makes visible the postmodern concept of deconstruction, which recognizes that behind every articulated meaning is a host of other, usually repressed meanings, some antithetical. By battering and mixing fonts, engaging in visual puns and generally violating the tenets of ‘good design,’ Fella lets a thousand flowers bloom. His designs don’t cut through the clutter—they revel in it.”

I think this quite aptly summarizes the joy I find in Fella’s Cranbrook map of 1972: reveling in the mashup of landscape, architecture, activity, and text. Fella captures the diversity and beauty of this unique assemblage we call Cranbrook.

– Kevin Adkisson, 2016-2019 Collections Fellow, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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