The design world mourns the loss of Carleton Varney, Mr. Color


The world of interior design 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 in a hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, after a long illness.

President and owner of Dorothy Draper & Co. for nearly 60 years, its own history intersects with the very history of design in America.

Originally from Massachusetts, he graduated from Oberlin College in 1958 and after a teaching job and a brief gig as a model in New York, he went to work as a designer for Dorothy Draper. There he learned all 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 the Draper company in 1966 and purchased it before her death in 1969.

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

“She was like ‘don’t show me anything that looks like sauce.’ I like cream velvet, but it had to be hidden because Mrs. Draper didn’t like anything that looked like it could be poured over a turkey,” Varney said of his mentor. “Her neutrals weren’t gray and white and beige; her neutral was this gorgeous aqua that Tiffany uses on their boxes.”

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

He and his late wife, Suzanne, founded the textile house Carleton V Ltd. in 1973 and throughout his career he has designed a wide range of homewares. He has published 37 decorating books and authored the official biography of Dorothy Draper, which was recently updated and reprinted.

Their story

Draper was born to a wealthy New York family in 1889 and spent her summers at the family cottage in Newport, RI. His great-grandfather was Oliver Wolcott, a Major General during the Revolutionary War and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Eleanor Roosevelt was his cousin, and Draper’s husband, Dr. George Draper, became Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s personal physician after he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis. Another of Draper’s cousins, Sister Parish, was a famous interior designer who started her own business in 1933.

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

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

Varney’s line is not full of bold names, but his connection to American history dates back to the Mayflower Pilgrims who arrived in 1620. Through his paternal grandmother, he was a direct descendant of Myles Standishthe military advisor who accompanied the Pilgrims and helped them establish Plymouth Colony.

Draper was the doyen of interior design from the 1920s through the 1960s, and Varney’s love of the theater matched her maximalist spirit perfectly. In public and at work, he was always well dressed and wore a headscarf – usually made of silk and made with one of his designs – and red socks. He once recounted that he went to dinner at a fine restaurant and the butler told him that his scarf was not an acceptable substitute for a tie. “I wore 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 nurtured others, including Rudy Saunderswho works in the offices of Dorothy Draper in New York.

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

While Draper and Varney worked on many major hotel projects, perhaps one of their best known is The Greenbrier resort in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., which Draper reinvented after World War II, and where Varney worked so intensely that he maintained an office inside the hotel. He was also the designer of 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 in to redecorate the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where he filled the rooms with floral-print rugs, upholstered chairs in pretty prints, and decorated several suites with guests in honor of American first ladies he admired, from Laura and Barbara Bush to Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter.

His fans

Houstonian Susu Ross’ 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 over the years. Varney became Ross’ personal decorator, bringing color to her Houston home as well as her weekend spot in Austin County.

“My master bedroom has pink and white striped wallpaper and a gorgeous fabric that is a shocking pink, white and green plaid. My living room is bright yellow, a guest bedroom has royal blue flooring and coral walls and a another has a red floor with dark emerald green walls. And all the 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 couple of days. Rudy (Saunders) said to me, ‘Susu, you’ve been holding it for the last two months. He was calling me and saying we need to get these lamps for Susu’s living room,'” she said. “We were just crazy about him.”

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

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

“Growing up, I was surrounded by color. We had a Chinese red office, an avocado green living room and a cobalt blue dining room. So when we went to the Greenbrier or Mackinac Island, we felt like home. I don’t feel like other hotels,” Elias said.
“Most of the hotels we’ve been to were dull and when you come to a place so carefully designed vertically…everything at the Greenbrier – from the toiletries to the draperies – was completely designed vertically. It cradled your soul and left an impression like , wow.”

Throughout his career, Varney has decorated 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 to do television interviews. He also decorated the official residence of Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn.

However, her plans for President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter were perhaps closest to her heart. For them, he styled White House state lunches and dinners, served as the color consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta, and decorated their log vacation home in Ellijay, Georgia.

Varney has also reached out to ordinary homeowners, selling her homewares on HSN and QVC.

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He was a frequent public speaker and most conversations sounded like he had 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 her last book. He was so charming that when she and her husband were planning a trip to Palm Beach, she called him to see if she could drop by his boutique and design studio.

They were welcomed into the store; Varney even let Vassiliou’s husband use his office to do the work during his visit.

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

Varney was predeceased by his ex-wife, Suzanne. He is survived by one 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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