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Edward Wormley

The elegant, understated and seemingly timeless furniture designed by Edward Wormley (1907-1995) was marketed throughout the forties, fifties and sixties as accessible necessities for the conservative, up-scale market that hadn't quite come around to modernism, which was seen as more avant-garde. Embracing the soft, curved lines of the period, he was praised for his fine craftsmanship, and for his ability to subdue a blatant 'self-expression' in his work. Wormley paid acute attention to the delicate interplay involved in selling a new style to people, writing that "modernism means freedom -- freedom to mix, to choose, to change, to embrace the new butto hold fast to what is good."

Wormley was born in a farm community near Chicago and spent his high school years enrolled in correspondence courses in interior design, before leaving to attend college at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1926. He ran out of money before he could finish school, but was able to obtain a position in 1928 working at Marshall Field's design studio in Chicago. He stayed there until 1930, working on an assignment to design a collection of 18th Century English reproduction furniture that was never put into production. In 1931 he began working for the Indiana based Dunbar Company, the collaboration that would make him a household name for several decades. Dunbar was an interesting company because they never automated their production processes, hand making each piece. They also garnered a powerful advertising presence in all the major industry magazines, mentioning Wormley at every occasion. His first Dunbar chairs, produced in 1932, were reproductions of antique designs, but when they became popular Wormley augmented the set with new pieces to form a full line of furniture for almost every room in the house. He was given a contract under which he would produce two lines of furniture each year, one traditional and one modern. By 1944, however, the popularity of the modern line had eclipsed its counterpart and the traditionalseries was dropped.

In 1945 Wormley opened his own office in New York, staying on as a consultant to Dunbar. In 1947 he created the "Precedent" collection for the competing Drexel Furniture Company, threatening his relationship with Dunbar. For a brief period afterwards he maintained a lower profile, designing showrooms, textiles and small objects like the popular "Cosmopolitan" globe stand for Rand McNally. Some of his most famous named pieces from this period are the 1946 "Long John" table and the simple 1948 "Listen-to-Me" chaise lounge. In 1957 he exploded back under a renewed commitment to Dunbar, launching the "Janus" group of furniture, inspired by Arts and Crafts traditions and featuring details like Japanese woodblock prints and Tiffany tiles. Dunbar accompanied the serieswith a veritable media blitz and displayed the line in a house built in their showroom in Chicago.

Charming and stylish, Wormley was an understandable addition to the roster of designers showcased in Playboy magazine's 1961 article on modern furniture. Although his furniture was predominantly very traditional and subtle in its structural innovations -- the 1960 "Téte-â-Téte" sofa, for example, had an opposing back and arm rest on both sides so that the sitters faced each other -- he was well-respected by the press and by his colleagues, creating a specific niche for himself in the canon of mid-century modern design.

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