The Daily Heller: Who Knows the Name Edward J Wormley?

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Commercial Article is a print magazine, smartly edited and designed by Commercial Artisan, an Indianapolis-based graphic design studio. This modest yet rich journal is a studio-generated product that explores the firm’s interest in Indiana’s regional design history. As editor James Sholly explains, the individuals profiled here have all made significant contributions to their respective fields, but remain less well-known than their contemporaries. “Commercial Article is our attempt to change that,” he writes.

The current issue, No. 15—”Edward J Wormley: Modernism From the Past”—written by Connie Zeigler and Shelley Selim, is about just such an unknown, the designer for the Dunbar Furniture Company, who produced an astonishing number of collections that drew on historical references but were designed for customers with the most modern sensibilities.

I’ve spoken with Sholly before about his self-appointed mission to bring Indiana from the shadows into the light of contemporary design history. Here is another installment of that conversation.

Edward J. Wormley is a name I’ve never heard before. Where was he in the hierarchy of Midcentury Moderns?
Edward J Wormley (he preferred to omit the period after his middle initial) was one of the great Midcentury Modern furniture and interior designers. In a 1961 Playboy article entitled “Designs for Living,” Wormley is featured alongside Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia, Jens Risom and George Nelson. He was likely the most well-known of all of them at the time, but probably the least known today. It seems like pockets of interest in Wormley emerge in waves every decade or so, but he remains a figure who is still regularly overlooked in design surveys of the period.

Was his design considered innovative or derivative of those working in the modern manner?
Derivative isn’t the right word, but unlike many of his Midcentury peers, Wormley had no compunction in referencing historical periods or even putting his own spin on specific designs. He felt that to be modern, one needn’t disregard everything that had come before. This is a key component of his particular type of Modernism and one of the characteristics that make him a unique figure.

You present his work with such panache. What’s enlightening to me is how many significant designers emerged from Chicago. Was he associated with the Chicago modern style?
Thank you! Panache is a word that seems particularly suited to Wormley—and Chicago. We’re not aware of what connections Wormley may have had to other Chicago designers or a Chicago modern style. He was connected to places like the Art Institute of Chicago, the Merchandise Mart and the design department at Marshall Field & Co., where he would have certainly encountered, interacted with and been influenced by other creative people working in the city.

Like so many of the individuals we’ve profiled, Wormley was recommended by one of our readers who had been aware of him and felt others should be too. After a cursory bit of investigation, we saw the potential to tell a story that hadn’t previously been fully told. It’s not a decision we take lightly, because committing to a subject like Wormley can occupy a great deal of time and effort to accurately piece together the record of a designer’s life and work. Connie Zeigler is our primary writer, and has uncovered facts about Wormley’s life that we don’t believe have ever been reported in other biographical pieces about him.

What was the importance of Dunbar?
The Dunbar Furniture Co. of Berne, IN, was a business that originally began in the 1870s as a buggy factory. By 1918 the company had switched its focus to upholstered chairs and other furniture, and had become populated with highly skilled Swiss craftsmen. Wormley began working with Dunbar as a furniture designer in 1931, and stayed with them through 1968. The importance of their partnership in Wormley’s rise to fame can’t be overstated. Dunbar provided the know-how and skilled talent to realize Wormley’s creative vision. The fine materials and craftsmanship often meant that Dunbar’s price point was higher than other modern furniture manufacturers. This meant that not everyone could afford it, but also means much of it that remains is still in good shape for today’s collectors.

What was his relationship to the famous Modernist patron Edgar Kaufmann?
In the mid-1940s, Wormley had established his own business and relocated to New York (retaining Dunbar as his primary client). By 1950 he was living in a luxury apartment on East 52nd Street, just across the hall from Edgar Kaufmann Jr., Director of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art. The two presumably met within a professional setting, but became life-long friends. Kaufmann was an important ally to Wormley, and exhibited his work at MoMA many times during his tenure there. Following Kaufmann’s 1955 departure from MoMA, it would be another 25 years before Wormley’s work was shown there again. Here’s what Kaufmann wrote about Wormley in a 1961 Interior Design story: “What in Ed Wormley commands admiration is the dependability of his skill, and the regularity with which it surges up to produce works intensely lyric and classically clear. … Originality has been endlessly overvalued in our times; some of the greatest designers have fought harder to be recognized as original than excellent. … Freedom from the compulsion to be original, this sense of present commitment rather than instant exploitation, are the very characteristics that stand out in the career of Edward Wormley and that make him, despite his quiet manner, one of the avant-garde.”

Where did his work fit into the MoMA “Good Design” exhibition?
The “Good Design” exhibitions were a collaboration between the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Running between 1950 and 1955, Wormley’s designs were selected for inclusion in four of the five exhibitions. The 1951 show featured 11 of his pieces either designed for Dunbar, or for the carpet manufacturer Alexander Smith and Sons. It was an impressive showing and an indication that Wormley had his finger on the pulse of evolving Midcentury American tastes. Shelley Selim, the Curator of Design and Decorative Arts at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, takes a deep dive into Wormley’s involvement with Kaufmann and the “Good Design” exhibitions in the latest issue.

What would you describe as his lasting legacy … and why is he not better known?
Connie Zeigler believes that Wormely’s legacy is as a transitional designer. His work was a bridge between traditional and modern modes of design. And because his work spanned decades and styles, he’s not a figure that fits neatly into one box, which is probably why he’s not as well known as some of his modern peers. One of the reasons we produce Commercial Article is to shed light on figures like Wormley, who may have been overlooked or faded from memory.

He appears to have had a harrowing near-death experience. How did that influence, if at all, his work?
He did! At the age of 23, Wormley was thrown through the window of a locomotive en route to Chicago when his train struck a car and derailed. Eleven people were killed, and many more were injured. Miraculously, Wormley landed in a mud puddle and walked away essentially unscathed. The train incident was just one in a series of misfortunes that might have hobbled others, but Wormley seemingly had the ability to get on with things. If the traumas he suffered influenced his work, he didn’t discuss it publicly. In fact, no other published reports about Wormley’s life even mention these incidents or their repercussions in his life.

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