Edward Wormley: modern designer mindful of classics

modern designer

This rare bench, Model 4871, made with walnut, cherry, Henning Watterston upholstery and leather, 1948, 87in wide, attained $28,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2015 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – One of the greats of the Modernism movement in furniture design was undoubtedly Edward Wormley (1907-1995). As one of America’s most prolific and leading designers, he spent over three decades of his career at Dunbar (save for a short break when he worked for its competitor, Drexel), designing up to two lines a year.

He is known for being mindful of classical design, taking historical elements that appealed to him but translated into a modern vocabulary, and in tune with current trends. In this way, he created furniture that was practical and comfortable for both the body and mind, physically and spiritually. He was famously quoted as saying, “Modernism means freedom – freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good.” While somewhat underappreciated among his design peers at the time, he did appear in Playboy magazine in July 1961 in an article profiling designers. He was photographed with Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Charles Eames, George Nelson and Jens Risom.

modern designer

A set of A-Frame lounge chairs for Dunbar, having mahogany frames and original blue upholstery, sold for $2,000 + the buyer’s premium in November 2015 at Briggs Auction Inc. Photo courtesy of Briggs Auction Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Wormley’s designs were immensely popular in their day and still are. Furniture styles have evolved greatly over the centuries as tastes have changed, from ornately decorated and heavily carved furniture to simple lines. Midcentury Modern pieces – Wormley’s bailiwick – have, however, stayed in the limelight for the way they transform a space and their ability to effortlessly blend with antiques and pieces from other styles. “Highly influenced by both historical and contemporary design, Wormley’s mid-century American furniture expressed a distinctly modern vernacular,” according to Chicago-based auctioneer Wright, which has auctioned many of the designer’s pieces.

modern designer

A Janus occasional table, Model 6047, 1960, in lacquered mahogany with Tiffany Studios glass tiles, earned $15,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Rago Arts and Auction Center. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction Center and LiveAuctioneers

Born in a Chicago suburb in 1907, Wormley studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1926 to 1928. He then went to work for Marshall Field & Co. department store in its interior design studio but by 1931, Dunbar recruited him and he soon became its director of Design. He would work here for over 30 years and his relationship with the firm is widely recognized as one of the most historically significant between a designer and manufacturer.

Interestingly, while he is now closely associated with designing Dunbar’s most expensive furniture lines, he was initially hired to revamp its most inexpensive furniture, which people used to acquire by redeeming soap coupons. His first chair lines for Dunbar were antique reproductions but his modern designs were an instant hit and the company soon focused exclusively on modern design having clean lines.

“His ability to combine the finest materials with outstanding craftsmanship became the cornerstone of his design statement,” according to Dunbar’s website.

modern designer

A pair of Model 5264 bookcases in walnut, circa 1949, 48 x 14½ x 64in, brought $16,000 + the buyer’s premium in June 2016 at Wright. Photo courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

According to Donzella, Wormley designed elegant pieces that Dunbar made by hand, a process that was well suited to the rich woods the designer favored as well as the beautiful woodworking details he liked to put into his pieces such as bent wood, cane seatbacks, tapered wood frames and woven wood panels on cabinets.

While at Drexel, his Precedent collection in 1947, a modern interpretation of Georgian furniture, remains iconic today. At Dunbar, among the many of pieces he created (over 100 a year for each year he was there), enduring favorites include the undulating “Listen-to-Me” chaise lounge, which debuted in 1948, the Magazine table of 1953 having bent wood pockets; his Janus line of furniture (1957) that combined the best of Arts and Crafts styling with a modern feel, using carved and bent wood, Japanese woodblock prints and glass tiles; and his A-frame wood chairs with a caned back and compass legs, circa 1959.

modern designer

One of Wormley’s iconic designs for Dunbar is this Tete-a-Tete sofa, Model 5944, which earned $8,000 + the buyer’s premium in May 2020 at Hindman. The upholstered sofa has lacquered mahogany and brass and is 80 inches long. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Iconic seating designs include the revolutionary Téte-â-Téte sofa, which featured opposing back and armrests on each side, enabling sitters to face one another. This line launched in the 1950s and another popular sofa line in the late ’50s was the Gondola. His upholstered sofas having ledge-like arms, which debuted in the mid-’60s, were also well received.

Wormley made significant contributions to the field of modern furniture design and his legacy continues to be felt today. Dunbar has long since left its birthplace in Indiana and is now in America’s furniture capital of High Point, N.C., but continues to produce furniture in keeping with Wormley’s designs for new generations to fall in love with.