Carleton Varney, interior designer known as Mr. Color, dies at 85
Carleton Varney, the exuberant interior designer whose enthusiastic use of color in hotels, castles, palaces and the homes of movie and theater royalty – and a president – earned him the nickname M Color, died July 14 in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 85 years old.
His son Sébastien confirmed the death, in a hospital, but did not specify the cause.
Mr. Varney was trained by the maximalist decorator Dorothy Draper, known for her Hollywood Regency flourishes – huge stripes, warm colors and swirls of plaster relief – and whose company he eventually bought in the 1960s. (Describing the style by Mrs. Draper, columnists have generally gotten entangled in hyperbole: “Close your eyes and imagine the fanciest movie set you’ve ever seen,” wrote one of them of the Palácio Quitandinha, a Brazilian hotel she designed in the 1940s. “Multiply by six and add ten.” Esquire magazine said of her work: “You breathe in elegance, and after straightening your tie, you exhale it too. “)
From Ms. Draper, Mr. Varney learned that every room needs a touch of black, and maybe a mirrored wall. He learned to mix at least three or four prints and patterns per piece; he also learned that vertical stripes make any space appear larger.
Mrs. Draper often said, “Don’t show me anything that looks like sauce!” Mr. Varney inherited his aversion to bland and beige, which he considered bad for the psyche.
“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.” he told 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.
Mr. Varney’s customers were as bold as his colors. For Ethel Merman, who displayed a fully decorated artificial Christmas tree all year round wherever she lived, Mr Varney dressed an apartment in patriotic red, white and blue. Judy Garland’s color palette was lime green and bright yellow. For an unnamed male client, he covered a bedroom in peacock blue velvet and satin and designed a closet to fit the man’s collection of S&M gear. (The play was featured in a French pornographic magazine.)
Joan Crawford loved yellow and orange; she also liked white walls, except in her bedrooms, which she had always painted pale pink. She told Mr. Varney, whom he noted in “Houses in My Heart” (2008): “A pink bedroom never stripped a man of his masculinity. It only made it better.
She also insisted that all of her upholstered furniture be covered in easy-to-clean plastic. “Joan had more plastic on his furniture than he used at the A.&P meat counter. supermarket,” Mr Varney said.
But he loved his eccentric client, who once asked him to be his permanent escort. (He refused.) He remembered her telling him, “I make it up, and you can make it up.” As a result, he says, he developed a signature look, favoring red socks and multicolored silk scarves, often by Hermès, which had been cut in half by a tailor and which he tied and wore like a tie.
“Dorothy Draper would cut anything in half—paintings, antique furniture—it didn’t matter,” he said, “so I guess I do the same.”
Mr Varney “looked like his insides,” Cindy Adams, the caustic veteran New York gossip columnist, said in a telephone interview. “Casual and colorful and a little over the top. He loved his customers, and he loved talking about the prince of this or that, but more than anything he loved the publicity. I adored him.
Stephen Drucker, former editor of House Beautiful and Martha Stewart Living, said Mr Varney was one of the last links to ‘the great ladies decorators who founded the profession’ and to ‘the old New York world from Hampshire House, the Colony Club and Place Sutton.
He added: “I remember religiously reading her column in a 60s newspaper, and her solution to every problem was to paint her coral pink, delphinium blue or daffodil yellow. Dorothy Draper was docile compared to him. His use of color was psychedelic, and we can make fun of it, but it takes a very special gift to be able to create pieces like he did.
During the Carter administration, Mr. Varney was a design consultant to the White House, decorating state dinners and other events. When the Israel-Egypt peace treaty was signed in 1979, President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, hosted a dinner for 1,340 people on the South Lawn of the White House; Mr. Varney covered the tables with a forsythia pattern and placed them in an orange tent. He also decorated the Carters’ log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in an old American style – although Mr. Carter made much of the furniture himself, including the couple’s four-poster bed.
In 1980, Mr. Varney designed memorabilia for the Democratic National Convention, at Madison Square Garden. These included tote bags, umbrellas and scarves, all made from quilted fabric printed with white and green stars and stripes (green was Mr Varney’s favorite color and also that of the President Carter).
Although the convention was bumpy – Senator Edward M. Kennedy was seeking to take the incumbent’s nomination, and his aides and President Carter nearly came to blows – Mr. Varney’s contributions went off without a hitch.
Over the years, Mr. Varney has designed fabrics, furniture, shoes, hats and table accessories like napkins, trays and candles, as well as candy-colored reading glasses and, in the years 1960 lighters that looked like gold-plated ice. cones.
In 1974, a company that owned a fleet of taxis in New York hired Mr. Varney to spruce up its Checker cabs, which he did with bright red seat belts, sky blue interior paint, vinyl seats with green and white tiles and green folding seats. “Drab Cab Gets Fabulous” Time magazine said. A satisfied taxi driver told The New York Times that he earned $4 more in tips every day driving his refurbished hack.
Carleton Bates Varney was born January 23, 1937 in Lynn, Mass., and grew up near Nahant. He is named after his father, a sporting goods store owner; his mother, Julia Catherine Mary Raczkowskos Varney, was a homemaker.
He majored in Spanish at Oberlin College in Ohio, and in 1960 earned a Master of Arts degree from New York University School of Education, now Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. He spent a year teaching Spanish, English and History in Westchester County. He was also an artist, and when he met Leon Hegwood, a decorator from Texas who had taken over Mrs. Draper’s business, he was hired as a draftsman. (Mrs. Draper remained with the business for a time. She died in 1969.)
In addition to his son Sebastian, Mr. Varney is survived by two other sons, Nicholas and Seamus; his partner, Brinsley Matthews, Vice President of Dorothy Draper & Company; a grandson; and a sister, Vivian Varney. His marriage in 1968 to Suzanne Lickdyke, also a designer, ended in divorce.
Mr. Varney is the author of more than 30 books on decorating, as well as two novels. Her most recent book, “The Draper Touch: The High Life and High Style of Dorothy Draper,” was released this month. His weekly advice column, “Your Family Decorator,” ran for more than 50 years and was syndicated for decades. He most recently appeared only in The Palm Beach Daily News.
Of the hundreds of hotels Mr. Varney has helped decorate — including a Sheraton in Waikiki, for which he hired Margaret Keane to paint portraits of wide-eyed Native Hawaiians — the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., is perhaps his most extravagant.
Parts of it were first built in 1778; in the 1940s it was a huge resort that Dorothy Draper called “a Brobdingnagian monster of a bowling alley” before working the place from stem to stern. She remained his decorator until Mr. Varney took on that role in the 1960s, and he amped up his Draperies: adding valances that look like huge bow ties, redoing halls and entire wings (he counts now more than 700 rooms), bas-relief gilding, painting the walls turquoise or tomato red, laying psychedelic carpets of his own design, among many interventions over the last half-century.
“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.