Edward J. Wormley: the modernist craftsman

‘Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.’  These are the words of America’s noted and significant mid-century modern designer Edward J. Wormley. Wormley’s glorious career spanned for three decades. Modern and chic, sophisticated and suave, pioneer collector of Art Nouveau, Edward Wormley forever left his mark on modern furniture design

Bio

J. Wormley was born on December 31, 1907 in Oswego, Illinois, United States. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago from 1926 to 1928 but ran out of money for tuition before he could graduate. He took his first job in the interior design studio at Marshall Field & Company department store where his job was to design a line of reproduction of 18th-century English furniture. In 1931, he was hired by the Indiana-based furniture company Dunbar ( http://www.collectdunbar.com ), where he quickly distinguished himself and became the Director of Design. Wormley’s tenure as Design Director spanned over a long thirty years. As Dunbar’s in-house designer, Wormley was responsible for producing up to two lines: one traditional, one modern, of most prestigious and expensive furniture each year. With Dunbar, he produced some of the most iconic designs. He won the Elsie de Wolfe Award in 1962 and The Designer of Distinction award in1982 from the American Society of Interior Designers. His work elevated him to a respected place alongside the likes of Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames and Eero Sarrinen.

Style

Wormley was one of the most significant style setters of the mid-century; he created an accessible modernism by embracing new trends without a total departure from historical influences. His genius was in selecting the best elements from classical, historical design and translating them into Modern vernacular. His talent combining fine craftsmanship together with both modernist and historical traits made for sophisticated design which was highly successful and with a wide appeal. His mid-century modern furniture designs were included in the Good Design shows of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951 and 1952. Examples of his furniture are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal.

Masterpieces

Edward Wormley modernized the iconic Riemerschmid chair designed by the German architect Richard Riemerschmid in the late 1890’s. It is kept in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His tiered Magazine Tree (1947) shows how creative he was in inventing new forms using modular wood elements .

Edward J. Wormley for Dunbar Furniture, Tree filer (mod. 4765), 1947
Edward J. Wormley for Dunbar Furniture, Tree filer (mod. 4765), 1947

The ‘Long John’ table and the ‘Listen-to-Me’ chaise lounge are among the most enduring designs for Dunbar furniture manufacturer from the 1940s.

The ‘Tete-a-Tete’ sofa was designed with an opposing back and arm rest on each side, allowing the sitters to face each other. Wormley created a series of tables for Dunbar which includes his tile-topped tables created as part of the Janus line in 1957 which incorporated the tiles and roundels by Otto Natzler and Tiffany. To this day, Wormley’s iconic furniture continues to make appearances in modern design.

Picture attribution

By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63469139