Remembering Carleton Varney
Interior design icon Carleton Varney passed away last week at the age of 85, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the design world and sparking countless tributes to his mark on the industry. Known as “Mr. Colour”, Varney’s use of bright, cheerful hues served as the basis for his design philosophy, which has attracted high-profile clients such as Joan Crawford and Judy Garlandand eventually spawned 37 books, as well as newspaper columns, TV shows, and product lines.
Originally from Massachusetts, Varney began his career with a stint in education before beginning his career in the design industry with a draftsman position at Dorothy Draper & Co. in 1958. There, a friendship with the owner Leon Hegwood led him quickly on the path of design. In 1964 Varney purchased the business himself and continued to serve at the helm for 60 years as owner and president.
In a short time, he became one of the industry’s leading voices, serving as a design consultant for the Carter administration and later contributing to such unique and varied projects as the US Vice President’s Residence. Naval Observatory under the George H. W. Bush administration; the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan; and most famously, the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, a 53-year-old project he took over from Dorothy Draper.
His close colleagues remember him as a defining figure in the lives and careers of those around him. Rudy Saunders, an interior designer with Dorothy Draper & Co., grew up vacationing at the Grand Hotel in Michigan and later struck up a correspondence with Varney as a fan of her work. The occasional connection was enough for Saunders to land his foot in the door with an internship at Dorothy Draper & Co., though he claims Varney’s willingness to reach out was simply a trademark of the designer’s personality. “He had these famous celebrity clients and politicians, but I think he also loved bringing color and wit and fun into the homes of so many people – with his column in a newspaper or when he gave his talks. , or even when he was doing the Home Shopping Network,” Saunders says. “It touched so many people.”
“He was really one of a kind,” says Beautiful house senior style director Robert Rufino. “They don’t make them like that anymore. It was a great original. Rufino sees his influence in the next generation of designers – talents like Miles Red, Nick Olsen and Katie Rider, to name a few, whose use of striking colors and patterns recalls the heritage that began with Draper and has been carried in new ways by Varney himself. (This embrace of colored pieces was something that worried Varney deeply: “I look at some design magazines, they show so many white and beige and colorless pieces, that I’m afraid the next generation will do even less color,” he said Denis Scully on a 2019 episode of The Home Business Podcast.) According to Rufino, Varney’s keen eye for color even showed in the designer’s signature red socks, which were his lucky charm.
For Beautiful house digital director Hadley Keller, a shared hatred of the color beige sparked a bond between the two, though Varney’s vast knowledge of all things art and design was what struck her most. “He could talk about everything from the history of design lexicon to stories about Andy Warholsays Keller. Her stamina in the design world, she says, has a lot to do with the strength of the philosophy behind her aesthetic – a commitment to color, patterns and objects that bring happiness to the people who inhabit a space.
Pulling from the archives of several sprawling interviews with the designer, Keller penned a tribute to Varney on social media after learning of his passing. His post includes an anecdote from Varney in which he recalls his mother saving fine china wrapped to keep for the “good” – in other words, to wait for a special occasion. “I always wondered when the ‘good’ was coming,” Keller said quoting Varney. “Wonderful should be everyday, so I decided a long time ago that I would always use the pretty things.”
Varney is survived by his sister Viviane Varney; and his sons Nicholas Varney, Seamus Varney and Sebastien Varney.
Home page image: Carleton Varney | Courtesy of Dorothy Draper Co.