Ten things to know about the mainstream modernist.
Though not exactly a household name like his contemporaries- Knoll, Saarinen, and Eames- Edward J Wormley (1907-1995) pioneered his own understated modern style that proved no less innovative or influential than the celebrated work of his peers. As one of the most significant style setters of the mid-twentieth century, Wormley created an accessible modernism by incorporating both modern and traditional design elements. Embracing the interplay between classical and contemporary, Wormley successfully sold modernism to the masses, changing the American interior and fostering a new aesthetic for the modern age.
Here are 10 things to know about the talented Mr. Wormley.
1. Humble Midwestern beginnings. Raised by a working class family in Oswego, Illinois (a small town near Chicago), the affable, charming, and witty Wormley made a name for himself in the Midwest, working for Marshall Field's in Chicago and Dunbar Furniture in Indiana. Is it too much of stretch to see his elegant, subdued modernism as a byproduct of his practical Midwestern roots? Probably not.
2. Studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and worked at Marshall Field's. After completing high school, Wormley attended the Art Institute, finishing three semesters before running out of funds. He left school and soon began apprenticing for the iconic department store where he created a line of eighteenth-century English reproduction furniture that was never produced.
3. The young designer met Le Corbusier in Paris. In 1931, Wormley traveled to Europe, and according to The New York Times, met Le Corbusier and the Art Deco designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. Around that same time, Wormley started to drop the period after his middle initial, a simple typographic choice that signaled his emerging modern aesthetic.
4. Dunbar Furniture gave him his big break. Shortly after his trip to Europe, Wormley accepted a position with the Dunbar Furniture Company in Berne, Indiana. At Dunbar (a company that never fully embraced mass production and handcrafted their pieces), Wormley designed both classic and contemporary furniture, but it was his updated modern line that mixed traditional elements with more streamlined designs that found instant success. Wormley acted as Dunbar's Director of Design for more than thirty years.
5. “Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.”- Edward Wormley.
6. Went to work for Dunbar’s competitor, Drexel. After working for Dunbar as an independent consultant and opening his own office in 1945, Wormley threatened his relationship with the Indiana furniture maker by creating a line for their competitor, Drexel Furniture Company. The gamble paid off and Drexel's "The Precedent" proved to be a huge commercial success. As for the designer's relationship with Dunbar? It would continue throughout the rest of his career.
7. Wormley's furniture was included in five MoMA exhibits between 1946 and 1952. Not only was Wormley's work part of MoMA's Good Design collection, but his designs were also exhibited in 100 Useful Objects of Fine Design (available under $100) and Design Trends in Unit Furniture, Fabric, and Tableware.
8. Wormley once worked with Salvador Dalí. In an attempt to modernize their image, Schiffer Prints hired six designers and artists, including Wormley, Dalí, Ray Eames, and George Nelson to design textiles for the company. The "Stimulus Collection" was released in 1949, and The New York Times called it "the most brilliant single collection of all modern prints introduced since the war."
9. Renewed his commitment to Dunbar in 1957, creating the Janus line. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement and featuring unique details like inlaid Tiffany tiles, the Janus line cemented Wormley's legacy as a furniture innovator.
10. Featured in the iconic Playboy photograph. Yes, that one. You know the photo. He's sitting in the front row between George Nelson and Eero Saarinen. You should probably frame it.
Edward Wormley passed away in 1995, leaving an indelible mark on American design. While his take on modernism was often more traditional and subtle than that of his peers, Wormley made modern design accessible to the American public by honoring both the past and the present. His distinctive, well-made furniture remains popular today, cementing his legacy as a designer that truly understood American taste.
Images at top: 1stdibs.com
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