Edward J. Wormley, best known for his custom and limited-edition furniture designs for the Dunbar Furniture Corporation, is honoured as one of the 20th century’s major designers of American modernist furniture. Along with contemporaries George Nelson and Florence Knoll, Wormley is credited as one of the leading designers who brought modern design into the US in the mid-1900s. Ironically, Wormley appreciated the traditional design that gave his modernist designs a distinctively muted warmth and a quality that defies time, making them stand out from among their contemporaries.
Childhood, Education, and Early Work
On December 31, 1907, Edward J Wormley was born to Myron and Edith Wormley in Oswego Illinois. Two years later, the Wormleys moved to Rochelle, Illinois. While still in high school, the young Edward, driven by a passion for design, studied Interior Decoration through a correspondence course offered by the New York School of Interior Design. He later attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1926 to 1928 but had to drop out because he didn’t have enough money to fully sustain his education. In 1930, he began working in the design studio at Marshall Field and Company department store. There, he was tasked to design a line of furniture that closely resembles 18th century English designs. Later that year, he traveled to Paris and met Art Deco master Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann and the modernist Le Corbusier. Wormley was inspired to change the way he designed furniture, creating plain surfaces and simplified silhouettes.
Wormley and Dunbar, the Match Made in Heaven
In 1931, the Dunbar Furniture Corporation based in Berne, Indiana hired Edward Wormley in a bold move to revitalise their least expensive furniture line and to see how their customers would receive modern-design furniture. At that time, Dunbar was making old-style reproduction furniture. Wormley, working closely with Dunbar’s expert craftsmen, took elements from historical and classical designs and reworked them with clean lines to appeal to modern sensibilities, producing furniture that mixed the elegance of the traditional designs with the functionality of modern designs. These designs were a hit, making Dunbar the top modern furniture producer in America during that time.
From 1931 to when Dunbar was sold in 1970, Edward Wormley produced as many as 150 design pieces a year for Dunbar. In fact, he designed two to four lines of 20 to 25 original pieces of furniture each per year for the company, both traditional lines and modern lines, until 1944 when it became apparent that buyers prefer the modern designs, making them best-sellers. That was when Wormley was tasked as Design Director to spearhead Dunbar’s efforts to modernise its furniture lines. Even when he set up his own private firm, Edward Wormley and Associates, after the war in 1945, he continued to make designs for Dunbar which he retained as a major client. It was during this period when the 1946 Long John table and the 1948 Listen-to-Me Chaise longue, two of Wormley’s most famous pieces, were produced. Though Wormley did large-scale redesign and remodeling projects for other clients, he still managed to produce commercially successful and critically acclaimed furniture designs for Dunbar, one of which is the 70-item 1957 Janus line.
In 1968, Wormley retired in Weston, Connecticut with his partner Edward Cass Crouse. He died on November 3, 1995.
Design Philosophy and Practice
Edward Wormley once said, “Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.” And that is what he did, marrying modern sensibilities to traditional designs. This is evident in many of Wormley’s signature pieces: His 1948 Listen-to-Me Chaise sports a gentle Rococo curve; the 1946 Riemerschmid Chair is a modern interpretation of a late 19th-century German design; the Model 5580 dining chairs have long slender finials based on those of Louis XVI chairs.
Wormley also said, “Furniture is needed for practical reasons, and because it must be there, it may as well be as pleasant as possible to look at, and in a less definable psychological way, comforting to the spirit.” This can be seen in his choice of materials: he did not use metal as a major element in his furniture. Instead, he preferred craft elements like tambour drawers, woven-wood cabinet fronts, and caned seatbacks. He also used wood as a luxury material and employed well-padded upholstery in contrast to the hard edges that often characterise modernist designs.
Awards and Distinctions
Edward Wormley received several awards for his designs. These awards include the Elsie de Wolfe award in 1962 from the American Institute of Decorators, the Total Design award in 1978 and the Designer of Distinction award in 1982 from the American Society of Interior Directors, and the Distinguished Designer award in 1986 from The American Society of Furniture Designers. Edward Wormley’s designs were included in the Good Design Exhibitions staged by the Museum of Modern Art and the Merchandise Mart between 1950 and 1955. This inclusion elevated Wormley to a respected place alongside well-known designers like Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, George Nelson, Jens Risom, and Eero Saarinen. Aside from that, Wormley’s work was also exhibited in other major exhibitions, including at the Boston Museum of Art in 1951, the Triennale XIII in Milan in 1964, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1983. Some of his designs have been immortalised, being exhibited in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal. Two books were written about him: The Dunbar Book of Contemporary Furniture (Berne, Indiana: Dunbar Furniture Corporation, 1956), and Edward Wormley: The Other Face of Modernism (New York: Lin-Weinberg Gallery, 1997).
But more than awards and exhibitions, his furniture designs proved their distinctive quality through those who bought and used them. Wormley emphasised comfort, quality, and strong silhouettes in his designs, and these made these designs very popular. A large number of Wormley’s popular pieces from the 1930s and 1940s were selling well even into the 1960s, and even command very high prices at auctions today. Some of his most famous designs like the Teardrop Chair, the Listen-to-Me Chaise, and the Tete-a-tete Sofa, are even being re-released by a new company, DUNBAR Furniture.
Edward Wormley proved that one need not choose the new over the old and that new things can be made out of the old. From his distinctive design philosophy, he conceived a subdued form of modernist design, one that produced furniture that fits into most decorating schemes and does not draw attention to itself. This philosophy, combined with his ability to match the finest materials with outstanding craftsmanship, has earned Wormley a place among the greats of furniture design in the 20th century.