A Distinctly American Modernism

Larry Weinberg

Edward Wormley was not only one of America’s most significant and influential modernist designers, but also one of its busiest.  From 1932 until his retirement in the late 1960s—except for a brief stint with Drexel Furniture—Wormley was Dunbar’s in-house designer, responsible for producing up to two lines of this country’s most prestigious and expensive furniture per year. Born in a farming community in Illinois in 1907, Wormley became a self-taught man of the world.  Cosmopolitan and urbane, by all accounts gregarious, witty, and charming, he read and traveled extensively, easily assimilating ideas, experiences, and even collected artifacts into his own design work.

    Edward Wormley's apartment in New York City, c. 1958

Edward Wormley’s genius was in his conversancy with design history, attention to detail, and his very conviviality. Wormley possessed a keen eye for style and proportion, an ability to work both with fine materials and industrial techniques, and a commitment to comfort and flexibility. His best designs rank with the best designs of the period, either for usefulness and economic value, or for sheer exuberance and imagination. Yet, somehow, Wormley managed to be misunderstood—both then and now—as a transitional figure, an adapter rather than a form-giver. In truth, as design historian Judith Gura argued, “he represented an alternative direction of modernism, one that sought a new design aesthetic without abandoning the precepts of the past.”  Wormley’s brand of modernism allowed for familiarity, memory, and personality. His interiors balanced accent pieces for drama and excitement with an underlying architectural sensibility that favored clean lines and simple elegance. His art was an art of assemblage, of juxtaposition and composition, whether of elements within a piece or pieces within a setting. Wormley’s career represents a complex achievement:  balancing old and new, he created a body of work that was comfortable and familiar, yet still managed to send the underlying message of modernism to places it might not otherwise have reached.

Wormley’s demanding oeuvre was realized by Dunbar Furniture. Located in Berne, Indiana, Dunbar drew on a community of immigrant Swiss craftsmen capable not only of machining to close tolerances, but also of performing intensive hand-carving, sanding and finishing on case pieces and frames, and equally painstaking hand-tufting and stitching on upholstered pieces. Writing in Furniture Production in 1958, Clifford Cox noted that Dunbar offered 60 different finishes including natural waxed ash and hand-rubbed oil walnut, along with 120 Wormley-selected fabrics featuring designs by Dorothy Liebes, Boris Kroll, Jack Lenor Larsen, and Henning Watterston. Overall, it was a happy collaboration that produced an extensive body of work of a quality and variety unmatched by other American factories at the time, and unlikely to be challenged again.

  The NYC Dunbar showroom, c. 1951

The spindle settee, model 4871, of which only a few examples are known to exist, exemplifies Wormley’s love of classicism and Dunbar’s extraordinary old-world craftsmanship. Designed at the same moment as the iconic and forward-looking Listen-to-Me chaise, model 4873, which pushed the envelope in new laminate technology, the spindle settee taxed Dunbar’s hand-carving and joining abilities to create a design at once delicate and solidly built. Part of Wormley’s efforts to create a distinctly American modern style, begun with the New World Group in 1941, the settee clearly references a Windsor birdcage (or spindle back) chair of the first quarter of the 19th century, and a Shaker bench of the mid-19th century. Significantly, both of these antecedents can be considered proto-modern—lean and austere, they appear fresh to modern eyes, and require little transformation to fit into modernist interiors. Wormley’s treatment is hence nuanced—he cleans up the lines so that the slender vertical spindles are precisely regular and evenly spaced, forming a colonnade contained within an equally thin frame, and rising from the thin straight line of the seat. The sweeping horizontality typical of a Wormley sofa is broken up here by the raised middle section, which creates a rhythm both above and below the seat, providing a dynamic visual element to a light and architecturally graceful composition. The original yellow cushion adds an extra accent of color, as does the contrasting tones of the wood—both integral features of Wormley’s furniture and interior schemes.

The true measure of the spindle settee lies in the fact that one example graced Wormley’s own living room in his apartment on the East River in Manhattan, an artfully wrought space that was photographed repeatedly for use in Dunbar promotional literature and shelter magazines. Placed along a glass curtain wall separating the interior from a wrap-around terrace, the settee was central to the harmonious architectural ordering of a space containing a seemingly disparate range of furnishings and objects, both old and new. The transparency of the design permitted an unobstructed view through it of the terrace and the city beyond that, a constituent of mid century indoor/outdoor living, as was the actual physical lightness of the piece—it could be moved around easily. The varying heights of the settee itself—a step up from the low Long John bench often in front of it--contributed to the up and down movement of the eye across the entire space, carefully orchestrated by Wormley to provide visual coherence and repose. Plainly, the settee must be regarded as a favorite of one of America’s great designers and interior designers.

Modernism means freedom – freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new but to hold fast to what is good. 

—Edward Wormley

Edward Wormley 1907–1995

Born in rural Illinois in 1907, Edward Wormley’s interest in design originated early in life and led him to later study at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Due to financial reasons, Wormley dropped out after 2 years and began his first job in an interior design studio before joining the Indiana-based Dunbar Furniture Company where he served as director of design for nearly 40 years.

Following World War II, Wormley became an independent consultant branching out to design textiles, globe stands, and showrooms. He designed award winning collections for Drexel Furniture Company and was included in the Good Design shows of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Characteristic of his design elements were functional engineering, decorative laminated plywood, and unconventional upholstery.

Wormley characteristically honored aesthetic qualities, following influences of Scandinavian modernism, while maintaining utilitarian qualities and “designing for the needs” of others. His work is timeless and of the highest quality. Wormley died in 1995, but his legacy is celebrated in collections including the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Montreal.

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