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Remembering Carleton B. Varney: Interior Decorator, Designer, Author, Publisher

Carleton Varney at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Varney)

Carleton B. Varney, one of America’s most famous interior decorators, passed away on July 14. He was 85.

“Mr. Color” of interior design, as Varney was fondly known, created an indelible presence on the island of St. Croix with his design office, his retail space Carleton Varney at The Mill, and his sophisticated take on Caribbean style in his joyful designs at Villa Madeleine. Varney designed two clothing lines: A Perfect Day in Paradise, and Carleton Varney Cruzan Wear, beckoning to locals and tourists with his strikingly colorful patterns.

For more than five decades, Varney was the owner and president of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc., America’s oldest, established, and continually operating interior design firm.

Varney grew up in Massachusetts and earned bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and fine arts from Oberlin College in 1958, with studies at the University of Madrid. He earned a master’s degree in education from New York University in 1960, and he held an honorary doctorate degree from the University of West Virginia. For several years he was the dean of the Carleton Varney School of Art & Design at the University of Charleston in West Virginia.

Carleton Varney in his New York office. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Varney)

He joined the firm of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. in 1958 as a draftsman. He often traveled with Draper for site visits to projects such as The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and the Barclay Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

A private home interior by Carleton Varney. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Varney)

Varney was the firm’s creative force and continued the Draper design philosophy of the use of bright colors and the rejection of all that is drab and impractical. He was adventurous in his expansion of bold and vibrant colors and floral patterns. Varney became president in 1966 and purchased the company prior to Draper’s death.

Varney’s son Sebastian Varney, principal at Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. and president of Carleton V Ltd. shared about his father, “He was always very proud of his family and really thought it was his greatest success. He was also someone who easily made and fostered long-term friendships; he was approachable and kind to everyone. Our father really cared about people and was always there for them when they asked for help. I’ve always known this well before his passing, but the sharing of wonderful stories, along with the responses I’ve received (since his death) have shown me just how much of an impact he had on people’s lives personally as much as he did as a designer.”

“Like countless others, I am proud to call him a role model, inspiration, and dear friend,” said Rudy Saunders, interior designer of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. “Our team feels wonderfully fortunate to have worked so closely with Mr. Varney. Anyone who experienced his magic knows what a truly special person he was. No one can light up a room and fill it with color and panache quite like Mr. Varney. We will strive to celebrate his legacy and continue his colorful, iconic work at Dorothy Draper & Company.”

In 1973, Varney and his wife Suzanne co-founded the textile house Carleton V Ltd. He was known particularly for his home collections including Kindel Grand Rapids, Dr. Livingstone I Presume, and Fine Paints of Europe, to name a few. He created collections with Royal Copenhagen China, including International China and many others. He had design offices in New York, Palm Beach, St. Croix, London, and The Greenbrier.

In a statement, the Justice family, which owns Greenbrier, said, “Carleton first came to The Greenbrier with Dorothy Draper & Company in 1960 and has been an important member of The Greenbrier family for more than 60 years. He played an integral role in establishing and maintaining the iconic look of America’s Resort and became a friend to hundreds of Team Members and guests throughout the years. Carleton inspired all with whom he came in contact in so many ways, and his legacy will live on inside these historic walls and around the world for years to come. Carleton loved The Greenbrier, and we loved him equally. He lived a life full of color and cheer, and there is no better way to honor his memory than by all of us doing the same. To say Carleton will be missed at The Greenbrier is an understatement.”

Some of Carleton Varney’s work at the Greenbrier Carleton Varney. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian Varney)

Varney designed and decorated private homes, commercial venues, cruise ships, and events in locations around the world. He decorated the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan where each of the more than 397 rooms was designed individually, including seven rooms dedicated to the first ladies of the United States. He was proud that he had decorated the three iconic hotels in Palm Beach, Florida — The Breakers, The Brazilian Court, and the Colony.

Varney’s joyful designs ran the gamut from Europe to New York to the Caribbean and on the water to Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, and in the Antarctic — the World Discoverer and the Society Explorer. He designed for multiple sporting events and uniforms for the Cleveland Browns.

His many notable private clients include royalty, dignitaries, celebrities, athletes, and more from Joan Crawford to Ethel Merman, former Vice-President Walter Mondale to Van Johnson, Judy Garland to Laurance Rockefeller, and the Pahlavi Foundation.

Numerous architectural and design magazines including Architectural Digest and Veranda, among others, published his works. He was named one of Architectural Digest’s Deans of Design in 2005. He decorated the Architectural Digest’s Green Room at the Oscars in 2008.

Beginning in 1980, Varney served as curator for the restoration and decoration of the USS Sequoia; styled White House state luncheons and dinners; served as color consultant for the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta; decorated President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn Carter’s log cabin home in Ellijay, Georgia; designed the official residence of Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife; designed china, scarves and favors for Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Marilyn Quayle, and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his wife.

Varney authored 37 books on decorating, penned two novels, and wrote the official biography of Dorothy Draper. He wrote a regular syndicated column that appeared in the Palm Beach Daily News and served as a design editor at Good Housekeeping for a number of years. He opened the publishing house, Shannongrove Press, in 2010.

He hosted one of the first television daily talk shows, Inside Design, dedicated to the topic of decorating. It began in 1966 and ran on the Christian Broadcasting Network. Beginning in the early 2000s, Varney hosted Live Vividly on the Home Shopping Network and programs on air with ValueVision and QVC.

Varney lectured all over the world, educating and inspiring design enthusiasts and designers alike. He was a keynote speaker at universities and museums and at art, antique and design fairs. In addition, Varney created the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating Weekend that was held annually at The Greenbrier and Grand Hotel.

In addition to being an accomplished designer and author, Varney was also an artist. In 1972, he had an art opening, “Subjects for Now,” at the Weintraub Gallery in New York. Varney continued to create art throughout his life.

Varney was a passionate fundraiser for neurological diseases and disorders. For several years with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, he co-chaired the Rita Hayworth Luncheon to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association in Palm Beach. He was the design consultant for An Evening with Joe Namath benefitting the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center at Jupiter Medical Center in 2016.

Throughout his life, Varney maintained residences in New York City; London; Millbrook, New York; Palm Beach, Florida; St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands; and County Limerick, Ireland.

Varney was predeceased by his former wife, Suzanne. He is survived by his sister Vivian Varney, three sons, Nicholas Varney, Seamus Varney, and Sebastian Varney, daughter-in-law Victoria Bratberg, grandson Bowie Varney, and many nieces and nephews.

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