September 22, 2023


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Design world mourns the loss of Carleton Varney, Mr. Color


The interior design world lost a legend this month with the death of Carleton Varney, whose nickname “Mr. Color” told the story of his decorating philosophy. Varney, 85, died at a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla., after an extended illness.

The president and owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. for nearly 60 years, his own story intersects with the very history of design in America.

A native of Massachusetts, he graduated from Oberlin College in 1958 and after a teaching job and brief gig as a fashion model in New York, went to work as a draftsman at Dorothy Draper. There, he learned everything he could from Draper, who refused to use beige in a home and, in fact, popularized the use of a bold mix of colors and patterns. Varney became president of Draper’s company in 1966 and bought it before her death in 1969. 

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In a 2018 interview before an appearance at the Decorative Center of Houston, Varney remembered his early days at Dorothy Draper, when the walls and ceiling were black, floors were green and well-placed lights made client presentations feel like high theater.

“She would say ‘show me nothing that looks like gravy.’ I like cream velvet, but you had to hide it because Mrs. Draper didn’t like anything that looked like it could be poured over a turkey,” Varney said of his mentor. “Her neutrals were not gray and white and beige; her neutral was that beautiful aqua that Tiffany uses on their boxes.”

In his more than 60-year career Varney decorated everything from homes to hotels, embassies, airplanes, cruise ships and yachts.

He and his late wife, Suzanne, founded the Carleton V Ltd. textile house in 1973, and throughout his career, he designed a wide array of home goods. He published 37 decorating books and wrote the official biography of Dorothy Draper, which was recently updated and re-released.

Their history

Draper was born into a wealthy family in New York in 1889, and spent summers at the family cottage in Newport, R.I. Her great-grandfather was Oliver Wolcott, a major general in the Revolutionary War and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Eleanor Roosevelt was her cousin, and Draper’s husband, Dr. George Draper, became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal physician after his polio diagnosis. Another of Draper’s cousins, Sister Parish, was a famous interior designer who founded her own firm in 1933.

Family, friends and business connections fueled Draper’s growing clientele, and in 1925, she opened Architectural Clearing House, believed to have been the first interior design business. Four years later, she renamed it Dorothy Draper & Co., now the oldest continually operating design firm in America.

She was so popular that in 1957, Edward R. Murrow interviewed her in her apartment for his “Person to Person” feature on CBS, asking her to describe her apartment since TV was still in its black-and-white years.

Varney’s lineage isn’t full of bold-faced names, but his link to American history dates back to the Mayflower pilgrims who arrived in 1620. Through his paternal grandmother, he was a direct descendant of Myles Standish, the military adviser who accompanied the pilgrims and helped them establish the Plymouth Colony.

Draper was the doyenne of interior design from the 1920s into the 1960s, and Varney’s love of theatrics was a perfect fit for her maximalist spirit. In public and at work, he was always well dressed and wore a neck scarf — usually of silk and made with one of his designs — and red socks. He once told a story about going out to dinner at a nice restaurant and being told by the maitre d’ that his scarf wasn’t an acceptable substitute for a necktie. “I’ve worn this scarf to Buckingham Palace, and it was good enough for the queen,” he replied. 

Just as Draper mentored Varney and launched his career, Varney has nurtured others, including Rudy Saunders, who works from Dorothy Draper offices in New York.

“Like countless others, I am proud to call him a role model, inspiration, and dear friend. He was incredibly giving of his time, creativity, and energy to so many people, especially those he loved,” Saunders said. “No one can light up a room and fill it with color and panache quite like Mr. Varney.”

While both Draper and Varney worked on many major hotel projects, perhaps one of their best known is The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., which Draper reinvented after World War II, and where Varney worked so extensively that he maintained an office inside the hotel. He also was the designer for iconic hotels in Palm Beach, where he lived: The Breakers; The Brazilian Court and The Colony.

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In the mid-1970s, Varney was called to redecorate the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., where he filled rooms with floral-print carpets, upholstered chairs in pretty prints and decorated several guest suites in honor of American first ladies he admired, from Laura and Barbara Bush to Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter.

His fans

Houstonian Susu Ross’s family owned a number of hotels, including the Arlington Hotel in Hot Springs, Ark., and her mother hired Draper — and later Varney — to work on their hotels through the years. Varney became the personal decorator for Ross, bringing color to her Houston home as well as her weekend place in Austin County.

“My master bedroom has pink and white stripe wallpaper and a wonderful fabric that’s shocking pink, white and green plaid. My living room is bright yellow, one guest room has a royal blue floor and coral walls and another has a red floor with dark emerald green walls. And all of he ceilings are robin’s egg blue,” Susu said of the love of color she shared with Varney. 

They also shared a decades-long friendship. “We talked every two or three days. Rudy (Saunders) told me, ‘Susu, you kept him going the last couple of months. He’d call me and say that we’ve got to get those lamps for Susu’s living room,'” she said. “We were just crazy about him.”

Families created vacation traditions traveling to the Grand Hotel and The Greenbrier each summer, and Houston interior designer Courtnay Elias of Creative Tonic Design remembers family trips to The Greenbrier with her parents, Barbara and Blake Tartt Jr. and her brother, Blake Tartt III.

Family vacations were often in the places where her father, a lawyer, went for legal conferences. They went to the Grand Hotel once and to the Greenbrier four or five times, she said.

“Growing up, I was surrounded by color. We had a Chinese red study, an avocado green living room and a cobalt blue dining room. So when we would go to the Greenbrier or to Mackinac Island, it felt like home. It didn’t feel like other hotels,” said Elias. 
“Most hotels we went to were drab and when you would get to a place that was so thoroughly vertically designed … everything at the Greenbrier — from the toiletries to draperies — was completely vertically designed. It would rock your soul and leave an impression like, wow.”

Throughout his career, Varney decorated for celebrities such as golfer Sam Snead, NFL quarterback Joe Namath, and actresses Judy Garland, Ethel Merman and Joan Crawford, who gave Varney advice on how to do TV interviews. He also decorated the official residence of Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn.

Perhaps nearest to his heart, though, were his projects for President and first lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. For them, he styled White House state luncheons and dinners, was the color consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta and decorated their log cabin vacation home in Ellijay, Ga. 

Varney also reached out to ordinary homeowners, too, selling his home goods on HSN and QVC.

MORE FROM DIANE COWEN: A home design that’s kind to the planet? Here’s how you can reduce your carbon footprint.

He was a frequent public speaker and most conversations left him feeling like he made a new friend.

Houston interior designer Sophia Vassiliou was influenced by Varney’s love of color, and when she learned he would be speaking in Houston in 2018, she went to the event and got an autograph for his latest book. He was so charming that when she and her husband planned a trip to Palm Beach, she called him to see if she could stop by his boutique and design studio.

They were welcomed in the store; Varney even let Vassiliou’s husband use his office to get work done while she visited.

“To me, he was one of the legends of our business. He was a trailblazer, so his death is a big blow,” she said. “I don’t know if younger designers know how much influence he (and Dorothy) had on the industry. They were influenced by him and don’t even know it.”

Varney was preceded in death by his former wife, Suzanne. He is survived by a sister, Vivian Varney; sons Nicholas Varney, Seamus Varney, and Sebastian Varney; daughter-in-law Victoria Bratberg; grandson, Bowie Varney; and several nieces and nephews.


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