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Edward Wormley (1907-1995)

Edward Wormley was a modern furniture designer whose style was informed by an appreciation for both the craftsmanship of the past and the structural innovations of his modernist age.

Edward J. Wormley was born in Oswego, Illinois in 1907. He showed artistic talent early in life and began taking correspondence courses at the New York School of Interior Design while in high school. He graduated high school in 1926 and went on to the Art Institute of Chicago, but was forced to drop out after only three terms when he could no longer afford tuition. Despite his lack of a formal degree, the cash-strapped young designer landed a position in the interior design studio of the great Marshall Field & Co. department store. After two years, he was transferred to Marshall Field’s custom furniture supplier, but was laid off shortly thereafter.

The lay-off was fortuitous. In 1931 destiny brought twenty-three year old Edward J. Wormley to the doors of a sleepy furniture company called Dunbar, based in Berne, Indiana. Initially tasked with designing Dunbar’s least expensive furniture line, in only five years Wormley made Dunbar the top producer of modern furniture in the United States, with designs as critically acclaimed as they were popular. He was incredibly prolific, designing between two and four lines of original pieces for each room of the house every year.

During WWII, Wormley ran the Furniture Unit of the Office of Price Administration in Washington. When the war ended he moved to New York City and opened a private firm, Edward Wormley and Associates. He maintained Dunbar as his primary client, designing such notable products for the company as its 1957 Janus line. During these years he also designed and consulted for Rand McNally, Lightolier, Macy’s and other companies. His work encompassed furniture, carpets, fabrics, lamps and the first rheostat lighting system for the home. In 1955 he joined the faculty of the Parsons School of Design, bringing his expertise to the classroom.

Wormley made modernism broadly popular for both home and office through his use of streamlined silhouettes and unadorned surfaces; his designs were seen as accessible in his own time. His furniture subtly references the influence of Le Corbusier and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, both of whom he met during a 1930 trip to Paris. His best work, particularly that for Dunbar, was made by hand.

Wormley retired in 1968, Dunbar closed in 1970, and Wormley’s standing as a great furniture designer faded until a 1997 exhibition at the Lin-Weinberg Gallery in New York reintroduced him to the design community. In 2002, Dunbar was reopened as Dunbar Furniture, LLC. It resumed production of select Wormley designs such as the Tête-à-Tête Sofa. His reputation was restored.

Wormley furniture has been included in the exhibitions of fine arts institutions since 1947: the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, San Francisco Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Triennale XIII in Milan. It is held in numerous permanent collections, both private and public.

Wormley sold at Rago

Wormley

Long low cabinet, 1950s, $16,250

Wormley

Pair of sofa tables (no. 5425) with Murano glass, 1950s, $14,640

Wormley

Janus tables with Natzler tiles, $13,420

Wormley

Janus table with Tiffany Favrile glass tiles, $13,420

Wormley

Coffee table with Natzler tiles, $13,200

Wormley

Janus tables (no. 6047), 1960s, $12,400

Wormley

Pair of Spinneybeck wing-back chairs, $12,200

Wormley

Mahogany and silk sofa, 1950s, $12,500