Edward Wormley was born in Oswego, IL, in 1907. A victim of childhood polio, he was unable to walk until the age of 5. Wormley overcame his disability and went on to graduate from high school in Rochelle, IL. In 1926, he attended the Art Institute of Chicago for two years. When he could no longer afford his tuition, he went to work first for Marshall Field & Co in Chicago, then for Berkey & Gay in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
In 1930, Wormley traveled to Paris, France, where he was introd
uced to Art Deco designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. This meeting influenced Wormley’s vision of furniture design. Upon his return to the United States, he went to work for the Dunbar Furniture Corporation in Berne, IN.
Initially hired to breathe new life into the company’s lowest-priced furniture line, Wormley carved out a niche for himself by combining historic designs with modern comfort. What began as a restyling of a furniture line that people bought with soap coupons resulted in one of the longest and most successful furniture design careers in America. Dunbar soon rose to the top and became regarded as the premier modern furniture producer in the U.S.A. In 1944, Dunbar decided to produce modern-style furniture exclusively.
Wormley produced about 150 pieces for Dunbar each year. He was soon acknowledged as a major influence on American design. Besides furniture, Wormley also brought his vision to carpets, textiles, and lighting systems. He had a personal passion for Tiffany lamps and artistic glass vases, both of which he avidly collected.
Wormley was soon designated as the design director for Dunbar. During World War II, he went to work for Washington’s Office of Price Administration. Wormley served as the director of their furniture division. When the war was over, he went back to his previous employer and continued to earn accolades for his designs. In 1951-52, some of his pieces were featured at the Good Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition marked Wormley’s transition from a talented craftsman into a recognized master of modern design.
During his almost 40 year stint with Dunbar, Wormley incorporated ideas from European furniture designers such as Jean-Michel Frank of France and Richard Riemerschmid of Germany. At Wormley’s urging, Dunbar agreed to manufacture modern reproductions of these designers’ historical pieces. One chair in particular looked so authentic that it was placed in the Riemerchmid family museum.
Other Wormley classics include the A-framed wood chair and ledge-armed tufted sofa of the late 1950’s to early 1960’s. He also revived international interest in Tiffany tiles, which he used to great effect to top his Janus table of 1957.
Wormley was praised for his artistic ability with woodworking as well as the importance he placed on comfort. His pieces were glimpses into the past given a modern twist, made comfortable by someone who understood what Americans valued in their furniture. He was the recipient of the Designer of Distinction award as well as the Elsie de Wolfe Award.
Edward Wormley died in 1995 at the age of 87. Many of his pieces can now be viewed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA, and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal, Canada.