The designs of Edward J Wormley were exhibited in 1950 at MoMA’s “Good Design” collection alongside established midcentury rockstars Eames and Nelson. From then on, Wormley’s distinctive furniture would impact midcentury modern production, its revival in the 1990s and the interiors of today’s midcentury marvels.
Edward Wormley was born in 1907 in a small town outside of Chicago. He discovered early on that he wanted to become an interior decorator and began pursuing his dream quickly. A course offered by the New York School of Interior Design to out of state high school students was his first formal instruction on design. He then attended the Art Institute of Chicago before apprenticing for Marshall Field where he designed reproductions of 18th-century furniture.
When the economy collapsed in 1931 Wormley, like most, was suddenly out of work. He used the layoff to his advantage and embarked on a trip to Europe, meeting renowned architects Le Corbusier and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, who helped him further refine his own taste. Wormley returned to the United States and was hired on as the marquee designer at Dunbar Furniture Company. Dunbar was a top producer of American furniture throughout the midcentury and known for the quality of production practices they used. Pieces were handmade and customized per client request and Wormley came to appreciate the craftsmanship involved in furniture construction.
His designs are said to honor tradition, reimagining forms seen in 19th century German, Rococo and Georgian design. Wormley contributed his work until retirement to the two full lines of furniture released per year by Dunbar, with about 100 pieces constructed per line.
At the same time he worked for Dunbar, Wormley also operated a studio in New York City. Here he pursued interior design and was commissioned by Lightolier, RCA, Rand McNally and Alex Smith & Sons. In 1948, Schiffer Prints chose Wormley to work with Salvador Dali, Ray Eames and George Nelson to create a line of textiles. After his retirement in 1968, Edward J Wormley (having dropped the punctuation after his middle initial to represent minimalism) was asked to teach at the Parsons School of Design. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts in 1984 from the school.
Wormley passed away in 1995 but designers and scholars continue to study his work today and his furniture can be seen on exhibit at museums across the country.