Carleton Varney, ‘Mr. Color’ of interior design, dies at 85

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Carleton Varney, an interior designer who bathed his spaces in emerald green and melon orange, azalea pink and royal blue, earned the moniker “Mr. Color” with a list of high-profile clients, including Joan Crawford and Jimmy Carter, died July 14 at a hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla. He was 85.

His son Sebastian Varney confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.

Mr Varney was the chairman and owner of Manhattan-based Dorothy Draper & Co., the namesake of the venerable decorator who hired him as a draftsman when he was in his early twenties and taught him vision shamelessly colorful design that has become his calling card.

“Ms. Draper didn’t like anything that looked like it could be poured over a turkey,” Mr. Varney told the Houston Chronicle. “No fabrics that looked beige or gray or soft or gravy-like” , he reminded another interviewer.

Mr. Varney purchased the Draper Company in the mid-1960s. For nearly six decades, he has entertained guests at White House state dinners, his high-profile private clients, and visitors to resorts, including the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va. – one of his signature projects – a vibrant antidote to the neutral colors of the modern world.

“I once went to a hotel on my way back from Bora Bora, and the carpet was a knotty gray, and the walls were beige with white trim, and the curtains were gray-beige,” Mr. Varney said. at the Washington Post in 2020. “Even the art was beige. I went into the travertine bathroom and when I came out I thought I was naked in a bowl of oatmeal.

Pro tip from the interior designer of the Greenbrier: go for color and avoid beige

Mr. Varney’s stories about his clients were as colorful as the coverings he had commissioned for their walls. Crawford hired him to decorate the apartment she acquired when she could no longer afford her old man’s $3,000 monthly upkeep.

She called him in tears, Mr Varney said, when her bill came due and she was unable to pay because the sale of her penthouse was not yet final. In the end, Mr Varney said, she paid every penny she owed. She also offered him a job as a “permanent escort”, which he declined.

For Ethel Merman, Mr. Varney designed an apartment in a red, white and blue pattern; for the emotionally fragile Judy Garland, he recalled, he “put soft yellow backgrounds in her house…which made her happy”.

His color combinations have drawn admirers far beyond Hollywood, including in the relatively quiet suburbs of Washington, where Mr. Varney was a go-to designer for President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalynn Carter. With just five days’ notice, The Post reported, he hosted a dinner to celebrate the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Under a yellow, white and orange tent, guests dined at tables adorned with forsythia-patterned tablecloths.

The Carters hired Mr. Varney to decorate their home in the Plains, Georgia, as well as their vacation home, a log cabin in the Georgia foothills. In subsequent Republican administrations, Mr. Varney worked for the Reagans and the Quayles, proving that the appeal of bright colors transcends party lines.

Mr. Varney oversaw the refurbishment of the Sequoia, the former presidential yacht which Carter sold as an “unwarranted and useless steering wheel”, as well as official venues including the US Embassy in Tokyo.

Besides the Greenbrier (whose color scheme was defined by Dorothy Draper), the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan, the Colony Palm Beach in Florida and the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan all bear her mark.

This brand was not to everyone’s taste.

“The Greenbrier is anything but subtle,” wrote a Post reporter a few years after a $50 million renovation curated by Mr. Varney. “The station…looks like the aftermath of a paintball game held at a garden party. Whack – mint green. Splat – canary yellow. Oof – teal.

But the style was inimitable, and it was his.

“I’ve spent 54 years trying to open America’s windows and doors to color,” Mr. Varney said in 2020. “I believe color has a total effect on the head, the people’s minds and attitudes. A beautiful, sunny room makes people happy. I think children who grow up in pretty, colorful, magical rooms are better people.

Carleton Bates Varney Jr. was born in Lynn, Mass., on January 23, 1937. His father owned a sporting goods store and his mother was a homemaker.

Mr. Varney was a 1958 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a master’s degree in education from New York University in 1960.

He taught at private schools in New Rochelle, NY, and Manhattan before working briefly in fashion, then embarking on his career as a designer. He had hoped to be a theater designer, he said, but found no such work available without a “connection”. ”

When he joined Dorothy Draper’s firm, he “did it all – vacuum the floor and empty the trash,” he told the Chronicle in 2018. “I actually still do all of that .” Draper died in 1969.

Mr Varney’s design empire also included the textile and wallcovering company Carleton V Ltd.

He hosted “Live Vividly” on the Home Shopping Network and wrote more than three dozen books, including “There’s No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer” (1980), “In the Pink: Dorothy Draper, America’s Most Fabulous Decorator” (2006), “Houses in My Heart: An International Decorator’s Colorful Journey” (2008) and “Mr. Color: The Greenbrier and Other Decorating Adventures” (2011).

Mr Varney’s marriage to Suzanne Lickdyke ended in divorce. Survivors include their three sons, Nicholas Varney of West Palm Beach, Seamus Varney of Edmeston, NY, and Sebastian Varney of Stanfordville, NY; a sister; and a grandson.

Mr. Varney’s taste for bright colors extended to his clothing choices. He liked green pants (green was an “influential color” in his life, he said) and red socks. He wore a scarf as a tie.

“I’m not trying to change the world,” he told The New York Times in 2012, “but I’m trying to make people aware of the thing I believe in the most: color is magic. “.

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