by Carol Steffan
In the pantheon of twentieth century designers, Edward Wormley (1907 – 1995) is not a name that immediately comes to mind. But in his vision he conveyed modern residential furniture style to the masses. Using wood and upholstery in a tailored way, his work appealed to an audience not ready for the austerity of International Style design.
Edward Wormley (1907 – 1995)
Born outside Chicago in Oswego, Illinois, Wormley was stricken with polio at an early age and did not walk until he was 5; he walked with a limp for the remainder or his life. After completing high school in Rochelle, Illinois, Womley was accepted at age 19 to the Art Institute of Chicago. When, after two years his funds ran out, he became employed as an interior designer by Marshall Field & Company department store, and briefly for Berkey & Gay, a furniture manufacturer located in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He began creating pieces with simplified silhouettes and plain surfaces after a trip in 1930 to Paris, where he met Le Corbusier and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the Art Deco designer. During the Depression, Wormley met then-president of Dunbar Furniture of Berne, Indiana, who hired him to upgrade its furniture line, which had previously been purchased with coupons found in boxes of borax, a laundry aid. Womley was up to his new task, and his designs were an immediate success, with Dunbar becoming the top producer of modern furnishings by 1936. For the next 39 years, Wormley designed around 150 pieces a year for the company, which was sold in 1970.
Wormley’s BENSEN Ed sofa
During World War II he worked as the head of the furniture unit of the Office of Price Administration in Washington. After that, Wormley set up a private practice in interior design, and Dunbar became his primary client. After a few years a business decision was made to focus exclusively on Modern and Scandinavian designs. Paired with Wormley’s keen eye for quality and Dunbar’s exacting craftsmanship, the result was furniture which was exceptionally well made, sophisticated, understated and elegant, yet at the same time, mainstream, and thus very successful. Among the classics Mr. Wormley designed were an A-frame wood chair with a caned back and compass legs of 1959, and a ledge-armed tufted sofa in the mid-1960’s.
Mid century wingback chair by Wormley
In 1941 he served as president of the American Designer’s Institute, and his work was included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Good Design exhibitions in New York in 1951 and 1952, and at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago during the years 1950 through 1955. He also won the Designer of Distinction Award from the American Society of Interior Designers and the Elsie de Wolfe Award. He understood the essential elements of Modernism, and his inclusion in these exhibitions gave him a place along side more well known designers as Harry Bertoia, Charles Nelson and Charles and Ray Eames.
Sideboard for Dunbar, 1950s
Said Jack Lenor Larsen: “Edward Wormley was a major influence on American design in the mid-century. And he did far more than furniture, designing carpets, fabrics, lamps for Lightolier and the first rheostat lighting system for the home.” Examples of Wormley’s furniture are in the collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal and Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and he will long be remembered for taking the best historical and classical elements of design, an understanding of the past, a feeling for what makes a chair comfortable for an American, and incorporating them into a new and modern vernacular.
Wormley died in 1995 at the age of 87 in Norwalk, Connecticut.