Interior decorator, author and publisher Carleton Varney died July 14 at a rehabilitation facility in West Palm Beach, Florida.
A service will be held at a later date in Ireland for Varney, 85, who died after an extended illness. Despite being in and out of the hospital prior to his death, he was still working full-time as much as he possibly could, dealing with clients on the phone and penning his column for “The Shiny Sheet”in the Palm Beach Daily News, his son Sebastian said.
For decades the gregarious and exacting decorator’s name was synonymous with the rules-breaking interior designer Dorothy Draper. He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Draper for seven years and headed up Dorothy Draper & Company as owner and president for nearly six decades. He joined the company as a draftsman through a friendship with the Texas decorator Leon Hegwood, the former owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. Now led by Varney’s son Sebastian, the company remains the oldest interior design firm in the U.S. In a 2008 interview with WWD, Varney said, “I worked with Dorothy for seven years and I have never really worked anywhere else. It was all destiny.”
True to his nickname “Mr. Color,” Varney adhered to Draper’s design ethos, which called for bold shades, comfort and practicality. With an innate eye for color and scale, his decorating was similar to his personality — grand, vibrant, bold and memorable. His 60-plus-year career involved decorating and designing a myriad of abodes for the affluent, hotels, cruise ships, events and commercial properties, including such singular locales as The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. From the coromandel screens Varney brought back from a Hong Kong trip for the hotel’s conference center to the new chapel’s stained glass that he personally designed, the decorator’s signature can be seen throughout the resort.
Despite the voluminous amount of projects that Varney dove into, his personal legacy was not something he gave much thought to — he was too consumed with whatever he was focused on, his son said. Varney also individually designed each of the 400 or so rooms for the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan. For seven rooms dedicated to first ladies of the U.S., he consulted with several former first ladies. His work can also be seen at The Breakers, The Brazilian Court and The Colony. Travelers around the globe may have seen his work unknowingly — the Westbury Hotels in London, Dromoland Castle, Sheraton Waikiki, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, The Plaza and the Waldorf Towers. His design talent was also put to use in the Charlotte Motor Speedway Clubhouse, the Cleveland Browns uniforms and the USS Sequoia, which is better known as the presidential yacht.
His myriad of bipartisan presidential ties included styling state dinners at the White House during the Carter administration, and later acting as the color consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta. During the George H.W. Bush years in Washington, Varney designed the official residence for Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn. Varney also created china, scarves and other keepsakes for Nancy Reagan, Rosalynn Carter and Laura Bush, among other political wives.
Varney also designed two clothing lines — A Perfect Day in Paradise and Carleton Varney Cruzan Wear and the eyewear collection iWear Carleton Varney. Through the the years he had such retail outposts 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 exhibition that he curated for the Museum of the City of New York recalled Tuesday how after using historical photos of The Greenbrier, her most famous project, and then visiting the resort was struck by how Varney was able to make it suitable for contemporary tastes and yet retain the aesthetic DNA Draper had created in the 1940s. “Although it was different, it retained her sensibility and style. And he was able to do that over many different generations over many different projects,” Albrecht said. “I found that remarkable.”
An Oberlin College graduate, Varney also earned a master’s degree at New York University. He taught for a year at New Rochelle Academy before joining Draper, rising to president in 1966 before later purchasing the company from its namesake founder.
Among the many things he learned from Draper, who had started her own career at the age of 40 in 1925, was to never worry about the jobs that you didn’t get. “I only worry about the ones I have. I am not a person who covets any of this. I think the guy above has a big control on our lives. I want to know that I have lived the life where I don’t have to worry where I go after I stop breathing,” he told WWD in 2008.
Varney built a namesake textile business Carleton V Ltd. with his wife Suzanne. Founded in 1973, the company established offices in some of the leading cities where its clients lived — New York, Palm Beach and London. There also was an outpost at The Greenbrier.
“Most people don’t understand that the visual is everything — the doorknobs, the hardware — I see everything. Rooms talk to me,” Varney once told WWD. “People become more conservative as they get older. They lose the freedom of being a child in the paintbox. They need confirmation and they want to be part of the group.”
Born outside of Boston in the gritty city 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 roll down the grassy hills in my shorts and go feed the ducks. That just wasn’t so.”
A direct descendant of Miles Standish through his paternal grandmother, Varney’s mother was born of Lithuanian immigrants and his Massachusetts-bred father ran a sporting goods store. The family later moved to the nearby coastal town of Nahant where Varney took to acrobatic tap lessons, basketball, ballroom dancing lessons and floral arrangement contests.
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 the evangelist Pat Robertson were among the many clients whom he worked with and entertained with his wit.
With the cinematic legend Crawford, Varney liked to refer to himself as a cosmetician, since the Hollywood-actor-turned-decorator William Haines did his part, too. “Her apartments had more plastic covering than meat at the A&P supermarket. Billy had put those 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 described Varney Tuesday as “a true 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 wrote 37 books on decorating, two novels and the official biography of Draper, which was updated in a deluxe edition and recently released. He also shared his design insights as a syndicated columnist in the Palm Beach Daily News and a design editor at Good Housekeeping and through Shannongrove Press, the publishing house that he unveiled in 2010. Varney was at work on an autobiography that will no longer go forward. After getting a jump on the daily TV 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 turned up on the set. Varney told WWD, “She helped me create me. I remember looking at those big eyes. She was a little bitty thing, 5-feet-2 and she said, ‘Remember one thing. I created me and you can create you, too, with what you do.’ We all have that opportunity to make of 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 wasn’t ever a 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 would wake up still at 6 o’clock in the morning and write his column longhand with a legal pad and then send it to his assistant to type up.”
In addition to his son Sebastian, Varney is survived by a sister Vivian and two other sons, Nicholas, a jewelry designer, and Seamus.