DESIGN DICTIONARY: Edward Wormley

Matthew Patrick Smyth

Matthew Patrick Smyth

Matthew Patrick Smyth

Matthew Patrick Smyth

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

"Modernism means freedom—freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good."--Edward Wormley

Introduction

I wrote a post on Edward Wormley about a month after I first started blogging   That was a while back.  Even though his last name sounds like it came from the Harry Potter series,  with words like "elegant," "clean-lined," and "timeless" commonly used to describe his designs, it is time for a reprise.

Edward Wormley is among modernism's great designers.  In Playboy's 1961 iconic photo, he is sitting second from the left, together with Harry Bertoia, Eero Saarinen, and Charles Eames.  All of them rest in a chair of their own design.  Wormley enjoyed great success for 4 decades and then fell into relative obscurity for 3.

Playboy cover from 1961 featuring modernism's great designers, including Edward Wormley, second from the left.

Playboy cover from 1961 featuring modernism's great designers, including Edward Wormley, second from the left.

After the Lin- Wienberg Gallery's 1997 landmark exhibition of his work, Wormley's furniture became highly sought after once again.  Collectors will find the catalog for the exhibition essential. Now Wormley is a decorator's darling and his designs command high prices at auction and in galleries.

This catalog of an exhibition of Edward Wormley's designs is a bible for collectors. This is my copy and someday I will own a piece by Wormley!

This catalog of an exhibition of Edward Wormley's designs is a bible for collectors. This is my copy and someday I will own a piece by Wormley!

Key Characteristic

What is the most important thing you should know about Edward Wormley? 

His work is distinguished from the other designers in the 1961 photo because he had a reverence for historical forms and often massaged them to make something unique.  This nod to the past set him apart from the more avant-garde designs of his colleagues from the period.  House Beautiful said it best: "Wormley's outstanding characteristic is his ability to design modern furniture that fits into period homes and period furniture with a modern cast to it. "

A pair of 1948 Edward Wormley sofas for Dunbar upholstered in a Scalamandré linen, vintage armchairs, and a 1956 Richard Neutra cocktail table in the living room; the von Nessen floor lamp was purchased at auction, and the 1920s Persian rug is from ABC Carpet & Home

A pair of 1948 Edward Wormley sofas for Dunbar upholstered in a Scalamandré linen, vintage armchairs, and a 1956 Richard Neutra cocktail table in the living room; the von Nessen floor lamp was purchased at auction, and the 1920s Persian rug is from ABC Carpet & Home

The majority of Edward Wormley's furniture was designed for the company Dunbar, who continues to offer some of his most iconic pieces today.  Even the Dunbar ads for Wormley's furniture are collectible, and one of the most charming campaigns from that Mad Men period.  It is enchanting and highly original how Dunbar often placed the furniture in an outdoor setting.  Other than Dunbar, Wormley produced one collection, called Precedent, for the Drexel Furniture Company.  Dunbar quickly asked him to stop, deeming the Drexel relationship a conflict of interest.

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Influences

Edward Wormley's upbringing influenced his work.  He was raised in a home of modest means.  His interest in design began early when he took a correspondence course in decorating while in high school.  Perhaps this upbringing drove him to design  furniture with precise uses in mind and caused him to consider consumers with modest needs and limited budgets. He strove to make his pieces livable.

After 3 terms at the Art Institute of Chicago (though an outstanding student, he ran out of money and couldn't finish), Wormley landed a job with Marshall Field.  There he designed an 18th century English reproduction furniture collection.  It was never produced because the Depression intervened, but his work studying antiques had a life long impact.

Edward Wormley's iconic shell console has more than a passing nod to antique forms.

Edward Wormley's iconic shell console has more than a passing nod to antique forms.

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Frequent trips to Europe also shaped Wormley's design sensibility.  On one, he arranged to meet the architect and designer  Le Corbusier and the Art Deco master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann.  The popular Scandinavian designs of his day also influenced Wormley. This chair is a particularly strong example of the Scandi sway.

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Janus Collection

Launched in 1957, the Janus collection is one of Wormley's most sought after collections for Dunbar.   Wormley, one of the earliest collectors of Tiffany glass (well before it was popular), decided to create a modern collection inspired by the Arts and Crafts period, citing California architects Greene and Greene as a source of inspiration.  The collection would incorporate design details such as inlaid tiles, both from Tiffany and later Natzler and antique Japanese woodblocks.

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Occasional tables by Edward Wormley from his Janus Collection for Dunbar featuring inlaid tile

Occasional tables by Edward Wormley from his Janus Collection for Dunbar featuring inlaid tile

Many of his pieces remained in Dunbar's collections for years, with one best-selling sofa in 1961,  being first introduced in 1949.  Some favorites acquired catchy names such as the "Listen to Me" chaise, the "Tete-a-Tete" sofa, the "Sheaf of Wheat table" and the "Long John coffee table."

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Today's Homes

Today's designers remain enamored by Wormley and seek to include his enduring designs in their finest rooms.

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley side table in in art dealer Brent Sikkema's NYC apartment

Edward Wormley side table in in art dealer Brent Sikkema's NYC apartment

NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson's New York Apartment featuring an Edward Wormley sofa

NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson's New York Apartment featuring an Edward Wormley sofa

Credits: Wormley quote from the Industrial Designers of America, House Beautiful quote from Todd Merrill's book Modern Americana. Playboy coverblue chair from 1st dibsshell console via deco phobia Janus cabinet from 1st dibs Occasional table collage from 1st dibs, Christies and Art Value.  Collage, Edward Wormley from Collect Dunbar, Listen to Me Chaise from Red Modern furniture, Tete-a-tete sofa from 1st dibs Sheaf of Wheat table from 1st dibs, Long John Coffee table from icollector  Photographs of Matthew Patrick Smyth's room at Holiday House by Lynn Byrne.