Famous New York Designer Commits Suicide

Paragraph 11 reads:  “On March 19, six months after the economic collapse and a week and a half after the Dow fell below 6,600 ­ the last night of the gloomiest winter in memory ­ Steven Schnipper, 56, was found dead in his apartment. The medical examiner ruled suicide from an overdose of antidepressants. The downstairs neighbors told police they thought they heard a thump on the floor at 2 or 3 a.m. the night before. There was no note, just a list of his relatives left on the living room table.”http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/20/fashion/20genb.html

Generation B

A Life on the Decline and Then the ‘Why?’

 

Robert Wright for The New York Times

WORK NO LONGER IN PROGRESS Scott Schnipper sorts through some of Steven’s design work.

By MICHAEL WINERIP

Published: September 18, 2009

IN the late 1970s, not long after coming out to his parents, Steven Schnipper left his hometown, Summit, N.J., for Manhattan and did not look back. By then he’d earned a master’s in graphic design from Yale and was excited to live in a city that so pleased his aesthetic sense.

He loved museums, architecture, reading, first edition books, the theater, seeing four movies in one day with his friend Annette Williams; the clothes at Barneys, Bergdorf and Armani; cosmetics counters, face creams, spas, manicures and pedicures; travel; five-star hotels; Swiss Style design; Helvetica typeface; the simple beauty of a straight, clean line.

His brother Scott, five years younger, would visit and wonder how the Schnippers had produced such an aesthete.

“He came from a family of dress salesmen, shoe salesmen, shopkeepers, schleppers, furriers and restaurant owners,” Scott Schnipper said. “His art and expression and culture and sophistication and taste stood out.”

Steven Schnipper was an award-winning designer, who kept getting better jobs. At Estée Lauder, he worked his way up to a position as an executive director of design.

For cosmetics lines like Prescriptives and La Mer, he created the packaging, brochures, advertising, in-store displays and direct mailings that looked like fine art.

As his first lover and lifelong best friend, Wesley Mancini, a fabric designer, said, “His 40s were definitely the best decade of his life.” He was making a (low) six-figure salary at Lauder, and in 2001, moved from an Upper East Side studio to a one-bedroom in the heart of Chelsea’s gay community. He supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, marched yearly in the AIDS walks and volunteered to deliver food to a senior center in the West Village.

But as Mr. Mancini said at the memorial service, “in his 50’s his world began to go amuck.” In 2003, during a round of downsizing, he was let go after 20 years at Estée Lauder. He quickly found work as a creative director at Revlon, but after three years lost his job there, too, when the company cut its work force 8 percent. He was hired by Coty, but let go in 2007, and never worked steadily again.

As the contraction of the cosmetics industry segued into the Great Recession, he grew desperate. This man who’d studied design under the legendary Paul Rand at Yale and won awards from AIGA (formerly the American Institute of Graphic Arts) was turned down for jobs as a salesclerk at Design Within Reach and a teller at Citigroup and TD Bank.

To make his condo payments, he began withdrawing $25,000 every three months from his 401(k). “What will I do if I can’t find a job?” he’d ask his brother, sobbing.

On March 19, six months after the economic collapse and a week and a half after the Dow fell below 6,600 ­ the last night of the gloomiest winter in memory ­ Steven Schnipper, 56, was found dead in his apartment. The medical examiner ruled suicide from an overdose of antidepressants. The downstairs neighbors told police they thought they heard a thump on the floor at 2 or 3 a.m. the night before. There was no note, just a list of his relatives left on the living room table.

“Until now,” said his brother, “Steven never caused anyone any trouble.”

People lose jobs all the time and don’t kill themselves. Why Steven Schnipper? Scott, who’s now 51 and an editor at Bloomberg News, said he knew that Steven was depressed and was seeing a therapist, but didn’t understand he suffered major depression. “I think it was masked by his work and income and the prestige of the jobs at the cosmetics companies. This stripped away his protective layer. Steven couldn’t think straight.”

Statistically, he was vulnerable. Boomers 45 to 64 have the highest suicide rate of all age groups, according to 2006 figures, the latest available, from the National Center for Health Statistics. Dr. Myrna Weissman, a Columbia psychiatry professor and member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said that starting about 20 years ago researchers noticed a higher rate of depression in boomers than the previous generation at that age. They attributed the increase to a number of stresses: more divorces, more-transient lifestyles, more drug use. “We expected to see this generation’s suicide rate increase, since people are more likely to kill themselves as they age,” Dr. Weissman said.

E-mail: Generationb@nytimes.com