Edward J. Wormley

“Boy Named Sue” is a J.Cash song about a fictional guy who overcompensates for a really dorky name. Poor little Edward was a non-fictional kid who got polio at 14 months that left him with a lifelong limp and a somewhat squabby frame, but perhaps nearly as awful must have been getting teased about his surname WORMLEY. — Yet, like Sue in the J.Cash song, little Edward greatly overcompensated for his name, and he ought to have thanked his dad for the gravel in his design gut and the spit in his design eye. The name ‘Wormley’ is now a proud appellation, and when associated with a piece of furniture, commands enormous respect (and loads of cash).

In one of those made-for-TV plot/career arcs, he rose from obscurity to fame on nothing but Horatio Alger-esque bootstrapping, enjoyed a plateau of prominence at the pinnacle of the golden 50′s furniture biz, then faded back to obscurity again, only to be re-discovered and re-exalted very late in life in his 80s, though his status as legendary designer has not become unassailable until quite recently, long after his passing in 1995.

Despite the claptrap twaddle from Modernists about the paramount functionality objective and designing for ‘real’ everyday people in ‘real’ everyday homes, Corbie and the gods of Bauhaus couldn’t have epic-failed any more awfully than they did in achieving these (perhaps) noble goals. Wormley, however, actually walked the walk, and didn’t even bother talking the talk. As Wormley himself points out in a 1987 interview (by Ray Smith for Interior Design):

“I wanted to make furniture that would agree with other people’s furniture, or with antiques, or that other designers or decorators would put together and mix in their own ways. Not in the way that I said it had to be. Not two Mies chairs with a Mies coffee table in front of them.” {oh, snap @Mies!}

Wormley was a worker, not an intellectualizer, a do-er, not a would-a/could-a/should-a prattler. This is what I love about him. He investigated real problems and found authentic design solutions, and he actually unashamedly cared about the business side of things, too. Being an artist didn’t somehow preclude his being a good businessman as well, as if artistic excellence requires swearing an oath of allegiance to Marxism, poverty, and being dumb at mathematics.

Perhaps this pragmatic approach, besides being characteristically American, also sprung from his humble origins. Not blessed to belong to some aristocratic coterie or to have artistic pedigree, he simply pursued his love of design in the only pedestrian ways he knew how. As a teenager still in high school, he enrolled in correspondence courses with the New York School of Interior Design. Upon graduation, he attended art school at the Art Institute of Chicago, but felt too constrained and uncomfortable with the ‘art world’ and the pedantic approach. He was compelled to DO design, not just keep endlessly learning it. So, he gathered together a portfolio of his best work (mostly from high school) and pounded pavement until he was hired, after his first interview, at Marshall Field & Company (a department store) where, for the next three years, he did interior design work for the store’s customers. During this time, he designed a collection of English retro-18th century style furniture, which was produced for the store by Berkey & Gay manufacturing company (of Grand Rapids), an association that soon led to his acquaintance with the Dunbar company, a relationship that would last 37 years.

Unlike the Modernists, Wormley didn’t eschew the historical. Unlike the Modernists who vainly believed they could dispose of history and start tabula rasa with themselves as the progenitors of a new epoch, Wormley recognized that history has a way of writing (or erasing) YOU, not vice versa. Wormley realized correctly that (i) history can’t be escaped, (ii) it is best embraced as an evolutionary point of reference and departure for one’s own work, and (iii) historical (or historico-complementary) design elements are WHAT NORMAL PEOPLE NEEDED in their normal interior environments (the fact of the matter was that just about everyone in pre-WWII America had homes that were modeled in some fashion after early American or English styles). Thus, he steeped himself in design history and made careful studies on his trips to Europe. In the mid-1930s, ‘Swedish Modern’ (a misnomer to be explained in a future posting) began to exert itself in the American design world, and Wormley set about designing with an eye to this new movement. However, (like the Scandinavians themselves) he never cut the tether to history, and continued to integrate historical elements into his designs. Among other things, this made it possible for normal people to assimilate gradually the new look into their existing interiors. — For this reason, Wormley has been wrongly called a ‘Transitional’ designer, as if he was bridging a link between the past and the Modern, a misconception perhaps exacerbated by Wormley’s own idiomatic use of the term. However, Wormley rejects the miscast:

“A lot of people just assumed, if they were Bauhaus minded, that everything I did was Transitional. It was a judgment I didn’t always agree with.”

Among his most famous designs are a klismos inspired chair (produced by Dunbar in 1939), based on a life-sized marble sculpture in the front row of the Theater of Dionysus at the foot of the Acropolis in Greece, several Biedermeier inspired pieces, a Riemerschmid-inspired chair, American Arts & Crafts inspired pieces, and so on. Some of his work was more squarely historical, and some was more ‘modern’ (lower-case ‘m’) in execution. It is wrong to gerrymander his artistic corpus and try to make him something he was not. His work was, thus, paleo-post-modern, to coin a term. He deliberately brought together historical elements and modern elements and wove them together in an entirely original and beautiful manner. Unlike the post-modernists of the late 70s and 80s though, he was not (thankfully) ironic or irreverent (read: puerile) about it. He was respectful and earnest, two sorely-missed characteristics of people and things from the midcentury era that made the better designs of that time both transcendent and sublime.

The Wormley vs. Modernists contrast brings up a deeper, philosophical question: Ought the designer’s work aim towards the ‘bottom’ (a loaded word) and provide a realistic means for normal people to improve their actual environments, or ought the designer aim for the ‘top’ (a loaded word) and show an ideal (detached from the dirty details of actual life) for normal people to strive towards asymptotically, such that it will never be practically achieved by anyone? — Clearly, Wormley thought the former, and I think he was right. {discuss amongst yourselves and post comments below}

One final note: He had a friendly rivalry with T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings, who trended in a very similar direction as Wormley, especially with respect to the (non-ironic) modern/historical blending and the fundamental focus on people’s actual interior design circumstances. But, apparently, Wormley was somewhat tormented by all the glory-hallelujah fanfare surrounding Charles Eames, about whom Wormley intimated was an ‘over-intellectualizer’ with meager artistic output. One could see how vexing this would have been, with Wormley’s amazing volume and variety of quality designs improving the lives of millions while yet Eames received all the art-critic trophies, having produced only a smattering of pieces along a tight bandwidth of style. It’s a recurrent tragic theme, in the art world especially.

Well, BOOOOO to limelight hoarders! Step the f*ck aside! Wormley’s day has come! Let’s duly admire and emulate his well-deserving, perspicuous artistic principles and loudly applaud his prodigious, unflagging output of dazzling designs!

Smith, C. Ray. “Edward Wormley. ” Interior Design. 58 (Jan 1987): 250(4).
Gura, Judith, “Rediscovering Wormley.” Interior Design, Feb 1997: 22.

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