Glancing Back to the Future

Edward Wormley with design greats in Playboy
A “Playboy” magazine cover from 1961 featuring modernism’s great designers. Edward Wormley is second from the left.

We’re eager to share some incredible news that will unfold during High Point Market today when we will introduce a new collection based upon Edward Wormley’s original designs for Dunbar. Haven’t heard of these two paramount players in the mid-century modern game? Well, you’re not alone, and that is about to change as the future of mid-century modern expands!

Edward Wormley, mid-century modern designer whose designs live into the future
Portrait of Edward J. Wormley, mid-century modern designer who created iconic pieces for Dunbar.

Resurrecting pivotal eras in design is irresistible to to us because we understand that sometimes the best place to begin looking into the future is to take a glance back in time. The resurgence of the mid-century aesthetic, which defined the quietly sexy fifties and less subdued sixties, is proof that if vision and quality existed, there is great material to mine. It’s interesting to me to note how the purity of that period, which resulted in cleaner lines has never lost its appeal for a number of reasons, some of which I don’t believe we can fully explain. Nostalgia, after all, can be a powerful seductress!

Furniture designed by Edward Wormley in Playboy
Edward Wormley featured with his designs in Playboy.

And whether the pull we feel when we see these sexy new designs is a case of wistfulness or a true spark toward great design is neither here nor there. What is momentous is this exciting collaborative effort we are announcing, a project brought about by Andy Hiser, who has been keeping the Wormley name alive by manufacturing furniture the designer created for Dunbar, and our design team, who we know will bring a dynamic new audience to his upholstery by introducing a number of his designs to our extensive network of connoisseurs. With this important launch taking place this week during High Point Market, we thought it would be apropos to explore a bit about Wormley’s entrée into the canon of modernism.

The president of Dunbar reads to children when the future of mid-century was new
Grover Sprunger, president of Dunbar when the catalog was produced is shown reading to children, setting the tone for the spirit of the playful narrative.

The lens through which we’ll present him is a whimsically designed catalog titled The Dunbar Book of Modern Furniture, which the company published in 1952. It is still available in a first edition, though this volume is quite pricey. Schiffer has since published it in its entirety under the title Dunbar: Fine Furniture of the 1950s as a more affordable alternative. It is an important survey of one of the finest cohesive collections of mid-century modern furniture we’ve seen. This, the fact that there is less available in terms of material on Wormley and his role in establishing this brave new aesthetic during its heyday makes it a fabulous reference book for any substantive design library. It’s also a magical narrative filled with children, pets and even regally postured unicorns interacting with sleekly handsome furniture. The entire presentation reveals a company with a truly playful spirit.

The Dunbar Austen chair as a playful swing
The Austen chair is shown as a impromptu swing enticing a little girl to play.

Wormley’s relationship with Dunbar began in 1947 when Grover Sprunger, who was heading up the small company at the time, tapped him to be the manufacturer’s exclusive designer. Located in Berne, Indiana, the pioneering company was making a name for itself on par with Herman Miller by producing avant-garde modern furnishings. Rather than exploring new materials as the latter did, Dunbar focused on wood as the primary material for frames and casegoods—the elemental emphasis achieving that Mad Men vibe that exploded in popularity when the show debuted in 2007—much to the chagrin of collectors who have quietly snapped up the period’s most prestigious pieces during the past half century.

The Austen armchair in Currey and Company's new Dunbar Collection means mid-century's future is secure
The Austen armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

While Herman Miller was teaming up with George Nelson, and Ray and Charles Eames, Dunbar was giving over its entire design vision to Wormley. All of these innovators achieved greatness in design during the critical middle decades of the twentieth-century, leaving the legacy we now know as the debut of modernism in American interiors. Wormley’s repertoire for Dunbar included sofas, chairs and ottomans, tables, cabinets, bar carts, desks, shelves, benches, and bedroom furniture.

A baby looks to a Doberman in the Dunbar Tear Drop chair
A baby in the Tear Drop chair curiously observes a Doberman Pinscher many times its size.

Andy discovered that Wormley’s oeuvre had survived and was available to be reproduced when he was actively searching for an opportunity to invest in or purchase what he deemed a “lite” domestic manufacturing company with a recognized brand name. This was during the early 2000’s and he made the smart move to acquire the intellectual property of the original Dunbar Furniture Company, which was owned by one of the company’s former presidents at the time.

The Tear Drop chair is being introduced by Currey and Company
The Tear Drop slipper chair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

“We approached him and made an offer to purchase the name and design archive, which included a large portion of Wormley’s work,” he explained. “Considering he was a contemporary of mid-century modern designers like the Eames, Saarinen, Nelson, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto, it seemed that Dunbar and Wormley were an integral part of the mid-century modern movement and American design history.”

Currey and Company introduces the Sullivan armchair
The Sullivan armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

Andy feels that now is an opportune time to collaborate with Currey & Company since there is significant market demand for well-designed objects with a scale and aesthetic reminiscent of the period during which Wormley was so prolific. “Some theorize that the interest is a passing trend but I believe rather than a period-specific ‘look’ driving the interest, it is the carefully executed designs, which transcend a specific era,” he adds. “Many of these continue to be sought-after by designers and collectors in the secondary market. Add this to an uptick in reissued designs from large companies like Knoll and Herman Miller, and I believe the sum total is that we are seeing a longer-term, broader interest rather than just another fad.”

Currey and Company's Dunbar Collection includes the Monroe chaira
The Monroe armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

This was precisely what occurred to Currey & Company’s creative director Cecil Adams when he realized Hiser owned the important body of work. “Andy is the supplier for our custom upholstery program at Currey and when I was visiting him in his plant to work on our collection, I noticed a few of the Wormley designs he had in production. They were quite appealing to me on a personal level and I made an effort to learn more about the designs.”

As we began to introduce and sell more mid-century-inspired designs in the lighting category, Cecil realized upholstery was a natural segue. “After a few attempts to come up with some modern accent chairs, it became apparent to me that perhaps we should just stick to the originals so I spoke with Andy about it,” he added. “He agreed to share some of the designs with Currey to distribute to our residential clientele. Prior to this introduction the designs have been marketed to the high-end contract and hospitality markets only.”

The Quinn armchair in Currey and Company's Dunbar Collection
The Quinn armchair, a new introduction in Currey & Company’s Dunbar Collection.

During High Point Market this week, we are introducing the Sullivan, Quinn, Monroe, Tear Drop, Austen and Tete-a-Tete upholstery pieces. To understand how remarkable an occurrence this is for avid fans without access to such high-quality pieces previously, we recommend that you order the Schiffer book. It will help you put these pieces in the context of the Wormley collective and understand how important they are to the future of the style. Surrounding these modern classics, the company created a magical world in which the designs became characters in the mid-century narrative. The book includes an illuminating preface by Leslie Piña that presents a history of the Dunbar/Wormley collaboration; a profile of Wormley; playful visuals; and quotes from the literature of A. A. Milne and James Thurber, whose whimsical writing furthered the impish ambience to make this so much more than a furniture catalog.

A. A. Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear
Milne with his son Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear at Cotchford Farm, their home in Sussex. Photo by Howard Coster, 1926, courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.

In case these names seem familiar to you, though you’re not sure why, Milne was the English author who created the character Winnie-the-Pooh and Thurber penned such witty-cum-wisened tales as The Unicorn in the Garden, which is delightfully presented in the video below:

This snippet of a Milne poem opens the catalog’s narrative:

Nobody…could call me
A fussy man —
BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!

As children romp in their buttoned-up ensembles so emblematic of that era, the book oozes period authenticity so convincingly that we had a flash of having our bread buttered as a child—a visceral talisman that tricks us into believing a return to a simpler time that really never existed is possible, particularly where domesticity is concerned.

The Dunbar Nine Foot sofa designed by Edward Wormley
The Nine Foot sofa is featured in the Dunbar catalog, a narrative befitting the time it was produced in 1952.

Weaving Thurber into the narrative, the catalog’s author opened the chapter titled “The bed is to sleep” with this bit of dialogue from The Unicorn in the Garden: “The man went up to the bedroom where his wife was still asleep and awakened her. ‘There’s a unicorn in the garden,’ he said. ‘Eating roses.’”

Dunbar's catalog featured a unicorn in a bed
A regal unicorn poses in an Edward Wormley bed in the Dunbar catalog.

The narrative continues, “Now the moral of our tale differs from Mr. Thurber’s for here the unicorn is in the bed and the bed is in the garden. So there never will be two sides to the question nor a wrong side to the bed. This has a double moral: the bedroom has the illusion of distance to be out of hearing; the bed, the serenity of repose to invite the dream.”

Author James Thurber smoking a cigarette
American author James Thurber, congruent with the times, photographed by Fred Palumbo lighting a cigarette.

This article invites a dream embraced by Cecil and his team as they style these pieces in one of their remarkable backdrops in our showroom in order to highlight the new collection and secure its place in the future of design.

A chandelier floats above a dining set by Dunbar
The Dunbar catalog contained whimsical vignettes, like this shot of the Round Extension table with a chandelier seeming to dangle from the sky.

Cecil summed up the gestalt of this turn of events quite well: “We are very excited to have this opportunity to share these designs with our customers at Currey and bring them something that is not available anywhere else in the marketplace. Wormley is truly one of the great, unsung heroes of modern design. Now all have to do is decide which ones I want to order for myself!” Thanks to Cecil and the team at Currey & Company, designs by one of the most important mid-century modern designers will live into the future.