Edward Wormley (1907-95) was born and grew up near Chicago, Illinois. He spent his high-school years enrolled in interior design courses through correspondence courses, having a keen interest in design. After attending the Art Institute of Chicago and running out of money to continue, in 1928 he obtained employment at Marshall Fields where he worked on the design of reproduction of English furniture from the 18th century which never went into production. In 1931 he became employed with the Dunbar Company of Indiana where they made furniture in the Arts and Crafts manner of individual, handmade pieces without mass production.
Wormley, after producing a series of traditional furniture pieces that garnered him renown, began the dichotomous creation of both traditional and modern furniture. Yet his modern furniture soon dwarfed his antique reproductions and the traditional line was dropped in 1944 to the favor of the contemporary.
While maintaining an association with Dunbar, Wormley struck out on his own and opened an office in New York in 1945. By 1947 he created the “Precedent Collection” for a competing firm known as the Drexel Furniture Company.
The most consistent pattern of Wormley’s designs is his attempt, at least in marketing, to stress the ability of his modern furniture to mix with styles from other periods. His furniture creations were without spectacular curves or bends, nor were they revolutionary by any means. Acceptance by the public in general was success in his estimation. By this standard, Wormley was truly successful.
The encouragement of mixing modern with other period styles comes from the resistance to modernity emanating from the mass of people who seem stuck around the turn of the 19th century or earlier, who indulge in nostalgic references to supposedly simpler times. Including a Queen Ann table with Panton chairs has the effect of dulling the perceived sharp edge of modernism. This proceeds from the general view of modernism by its most purist examples or movements. Many think of modernism as minimalist or brutalist in its manifestations, not realizing that modernism, as with many other major design trends in history, covers a grand swath of various ideas and advocates. Modernism can be linear and severe, but it can also be full of curves and twists with grand embellishments and the inclusion of “organic” elements in tune with nature.
During the late 1940s, Wormley’s most notable furniture designs include the 1946 “Long John” table and the 1948 “Listen to Me” chaise lounge chair.
In 1957, Wormley went all out with his old association with Dunbar Furniture Company and created the Janus series of furniture which deepened the respect and the notability of his designs among the many modernist creations.
The above are a few of Wormley’s furniture in the Janus Line for Dunbar. He produced much more than what has been so far presented. He was active in the 1960s and beyond. Below are a few examples.
Although some purists might shrink at some of Wormley’s tufted upholstery, they are not much different from the productions of some other modernists such as Wegner or Featherston who provided a few references to other periods by such flourishes. His furniture is pleasant, well made, modern and useful as well as easy on the eye. Fortunately, his furniture is still widely available and should be a welcome addition to many different interiors.
NOTE: This series, Lessor Known Designers, refers to designers that might not be well know among the general public, not necessarily among those who are familiar with design in the 20th century.