Edward J. Wormley (1907-1995) furniture designer, furniture historian, writer
Born in 1907 in Oswego, Edward Wormley took correspondence courses in interior design while in high school. In 1926 he started studying design at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1928 took a job in the interior design studio at Marshall Field & Company. There he worked on reproductions of 18th century English furniture. In 1930 he went to Paris and met modernist architect Le Corbusier and Art Deco furniture designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, both of whom proved important influences on him. Upon returning to the US, Wormley began designing furniture pieces with an emphasis on clean lines that reflected a more modernist perspective.
In 1931 the twenty-three-year-old designer was recruited by the prestigious Dunbar Company to develop their furniture lines. He quickly became Director of Design and would maintain the association with the Company for over thirty years. His first Dunbar chairs were reproductions of antiques, but soon he was creating new modern lines as well, and these became so popular that in 1944 the Company focused exclusively on modern design. Dunbar producing pieces by hand, perfectly suiting Wormley’s use of woods and his penchant for crafted detailing such as cane seatbacks and woven wood cabinet panels. The result was beautifully made, understatedly elegant furniture.
During World War II Wormley worked as head of the furniture unit of the Office of Price Administration in Washington. After the war he continued as Dunbar's design director, but now working from his own design studio, which he opened in New York in 1945. There he created modern interpretations of traditional period designs, for example, a dining chair with Louis XVI-type finials, or a chaise with Rococo-inspired curves. His 1946 Riemerschmid Chair updated late-19th century German design, while the “Precedent” collection he created for Drexel Furniture in 1947 was a modernized paring down of Georgian style. Among his most enduring Dunbar designs from the 1940s are the "Long John" table, the "Listen-to-Me" chaise lounge, and the “Téte-â-Téte” sofa, which was designed with an opposing back and arm rest on each side, allowing the sitters to face each other.
In the early 1950s Wormley was included in the Good Design Exhibitions cosponsored by the Museum of Modern Art and Chicago Merchandise Mart. In total, thirty of his designs were displayed alongside those of Harry Bertoia, George Nelson, and Charles Eames, to name a few. In 1957 he launched the Janus line of furniture for Dunbar, drawing inspiration from the Arts and Crafts movement and utilizing modern production design, incorporating details such as carved and bent wood, Japanese woodblock prints, glass tiles by Tiffany, as well as tiles by master ceramicists Gertrud and Otto Natzler. His 1956 tables with inlaid Tiffany glass-tiles heralded an Art-Nouveau revival. Asides from Dunbar, Wormley took on projects designing showrooms, textiles, and small objects, e.g., the iconic "Cosmopolitan" globe stand for Rand McNally.
From the 1950s on, Wormley designs were added to important museum collections throughout the US. He also started teaching at Parsons School of Design (1952-1970). In 1961 he was part of a Playboy magazine feature on the pioneers of Modernism along with Geroge Nelson, Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, Jens Risom, and Charles Eames, all pictured in a group shot with each sitting on a chair he had designed. In 1962 Wormley received the Elsie de Wolfe Award from the American Institute of Decorators. He received the Total Design award in 1978 and the Designer of Distinction award in 1982, both from the American Society of Interior Designers.
Through four decades Wormley remained one of the most prominent American furniture designers. His talent combining fine craftmanship together with both modernist and historical traits made for sophisticated design with wide appeal, especially for the customer who did not embrace more avant-garde modernism. Implicitly understanding modernism without limiting himself to any one set of rules, Wormley was able to achieve mainstream success by offering style that has proven timeless. As he put it, “Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.” Edward Wormley died in 1995 in Connecticut at the age of 87.
Museums and Exhibitions
Design Trends in Unit Furniture, Fabric and Tableware, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946
100 Useful Objects of Fine Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1947-48
Acquisitions: Architecture and Design, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1979
The Edward J Wormley Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Decorative Arts, Montreal; Baltimore Museum of Art; The Brooklyn Museum; The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; The Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
Wormley Dunbar. Edward J Wormley 1907-1995: Design Director of Dunbar Furniture, by Marie Ferran-Wabbes
The Dunbar Book of Modern Furniture Hardcover by Edward J Wormley, 1953
Edward J Wormley Papers, Circa 1908-1991, The New School Libraries & Archives, New York
Edward J Wormley & Edward Crouse Papers, Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library