Interior designer, author and publisher Carleton Varney died July 14 at a rehabilitation center in West Palm Beach, Florida.
A service will be held at a later date in Ireland for Varney, 85, who died after a long illness. Although he had been in and out of the hospital before his death, he still worked full-time as much as he could, attending to clients on the phone and writing his column for “The Shiny Sheet” in the Palm Beach Daily News, says his son Sebastien.
For decades, the name of the gregarious and demanding decorator was synonymous with interior designer Dorothy Draper who broke the rules. He worked side-by-side with Draper for seven years and led Dorothy Draper & Company as owner and president for nearly six decades. He joined the company as a designer through a friendship with Texas decorator Leon Hegwood, the former owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. Now run by Varney’s son, Sebastian, the company remains the oldest firm in interior design in the United States. In a 2008 interview with WWD, Varney said, “I worked with Dorothy for seven years and I’ve never really worked anywhere else. It was all fate.
True to his “Mr. Color” moniker, Varney stuck to Draper’s design philosophy, which called for bold shades, comfort and practicality. With an innate eye for color and scale, her decoration was similar to her personality – grand, vibrant, bold and memorable. His 60+ year career has involved decorating and designing myriad homes for the wealthy, hotels, cruise ships, events and commercial properties, including singular venues such as The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. From the coromandel screens that Varney brought back from a trip to Hong Kong for the hotel’s conference center to the stained glass windows in the new chapel that he personally designed, the decorator’s signature can be seen throughout the resort.
Despite the voluminous number of projects Varney immersed himself in, his personal legacy wasn’t something he gave much thought to — he was too engrossed in whatever he focused on, his son said. Varney also individually designed each of the approximately 400 rooms at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. For seven rooms dedicated to the first ladies of the United States, he consulted several former first ladies. His work can also be seen at The Breakers, The Brazilian Court and The Colony. Travelers around the world may have seen his work without knowing it – the Westbury Hotels in London, Dromoland Castle, the Sheraton Waikiki, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, the Plaza and the Waldorf Towers. His talent as a designer has also been put to good use in the Charlotte Motor Speedway Clubhouse, Cleveland Browns uniforms and the USS Sequoia, better known as the Presidential Yacht.
His myriad bipartisan presidential ties included state dinners at the White House during the Carter administration, and he later acted as a color consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. During the George HW Bush years in Washington, Varney designed the official residence of Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn. Varney also created china, scarves, and other memorabilia for Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter, and Laura Bush, among other political wives.
Varney has also designed two clothing lines – A Perfect Day in Paradise and Carleton Varney Cruzan Wear and the iWear Carleton Varney eyewear collection. Over the years it has had retail outposts such as Carleton Varney Rose Cottage in Ireland, Carleton Varney at The Mill in St. Croix and Dorothy Draper Home at The Greenbrier.
Donald Albrecht, who met Varney through a Draper exhibit he curated for the Museum of the City of New York, recalled on Tuesday how, after using historic photos from The Greenbrier, his most famous project, then visited station, he was struck by how Varney was able to adapt it to contemporary tastes while retaining the aesthetic DNA that Draper had created in the 1940s. “Although she was different, she retained her sensibility and his style. And he was able to do that over many different generations on many different projects,” Albrecht said. “I found that remarkable.”
A graduate of Oberlin College, Varney also earned a master’s degree from New York University. He taught for a year at New Rochelle Academy before joining Draper, becoming president in 1966 before later buying the company from its namesake founder.
Among the many things he learned from Draper, who started his own career at the age of 40 in 1925, was to never worry about the jobs you weren’t getting. “I only worry about the ones I have. I am not a person who covets all of this. I think the guy above has great control over our lives. I want to know that I’ve lived the life where I don’t have to worry about where I’m going after I stop breathing,” he told WWD in 2008.
Varney founded an eponymous textile company, Carleton V Ltd., with his wife Suzanne. Founded in 1973, the company established offices in some of the major cities where its clients lived – New York, Palm Beach and London. There was also an outpost at The Greenbrier.
“Most people don’t understand that the visual is everything — the doorknobs, the hardware — I see everything. Rooms speak to me,” Varney told WWD. “People become more conservative as they get older. They lose the freedom to be a kid in the paint box. They need confirmation and they want to be part of the group.
Born outside of Boston in the gritty town of Lynn, Massachusetts, Varney once said of his upbringing, “People have this misrepresentation of me as someone who grew up in a house surrounded by white columns and, as a boy, used to ride on the grassy hills in my shorts and go feed the ducks. It just wasn’t.
A direct descendant of Miles Standish through his paternal grandmother, Varney’s mother was born to Lithuanian immigrants and his Massachusetts-raised father ran a sporting goods store. The family then moved to the nearby coastal town of Nahant where Varney took acrobatic tap lessons, basketball, ballroom dancing lessons and flower arrangement competitions.
From helping to design the Errol Flynn furniture collection to renovating part of the Royal Palace in Lithuania, Varney was often on the move. Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, Judy Garland, the Shah of Iran, former President Jimmy Carter, Ethel Merman, Joe Namath and evangelist Pat Robertson were among the many clients he worked with and entertained with his wit.
Along with movie legend Crawford, Varney liked to call himself a cosmetician, as Hollywood actor turned set designer William Haines also did his part. “His apartments had more plastic than meat at the A&P supermarket. Billy had them on. Joan was an absolute neatnik and she was a friend until the day she died,” Varney said.
The Greenbrier’s interior design project manager, Merriweather Franklin, on Tuesday described Varney as “a real treasure”, who served as the hotel’s decorator for 60 years. “‘Mr. Color’ could often be seen greeting each employee and guest, as if he had known them for years,” she said.
Varney has written 37 books on decorating, two novels, and Draper’s official biography, which was updated in a recently published deluxe edition. He also shared his design ideas as a syndicated columnist in the Palm Beach Daily News and design editor at Good Housekeeping and through Shannongrove Press, the publishing house he unveiled in 2010. Varney was working on an autobiography that will no longer go forward. . After jumping onto the daily television talk show circuit with the 1966 launch of “Inside Design” on the Christian Broadcasting Network, he later hosted “Live Vividly” on the Home Shopping Network.
Crawford helped Varney with his first TV show and even appeared on set. Varney told WWD: “She helped create me. I remember looking at those big eyes. She was a little thing, 5-foot-2, and she said, ‘Remember one thing. I created me and you can create yourself with what you do.’ We all have this ability to do with ourselves what we do with ourselves.
As for Varney’s tireless drive, his son Sebastian said: “Carleton had an incredibly powerful mind. Whatever he wanted to do, he would just do it. There was never any motivation. If he wanted to read a book, Carleton would read a book in a day. If he wanted to go to a show that night, he found the ticket and went. He always woke up at 6 a.m. and wrote his column by hand with a legal pad, then sent it to his assistant to type.
In addition to his son Sebastian, Varney is survived by a sister Vivian and two other sons, Nicholas, a jewelry designer, and Seamus.