Carleton Varney leaves behind a legacy that gave hotel operators the freedom to break from bland playbooks on design, and that challenged them — Dare to be bold.
Carleton Varney, a renowned interior decorator whose love of audacious colors defied convention in the all-too-often cookie cutter world of hotel interiors, died earlier this month in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was 85, and his death came after a long illness.
He worked not only in revamping such landmark hotels as The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island and The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, but he also lent his flair for color to cruise ships and homes across the globe. His work extended to the estates of the ultra wealthy and the White House. His star clients included Jimmy Carter, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray, Joe Namath, Judy Garland and Ethel Merman, among many others.
Varney learned his design aesthetic starting first as a draftsman, and then working closely with design doyenne Dorothy Draper before heading her company, Dorothy Draper & Company, as owner and president for nearly six decades. He bought the company after her death in 1969.
Both Varney and Draper were known for their use of colors as rich as emerald green, melon orange, and azalea pink.
Varney’s work included designs for “the Westbury Hotels in London, Dromoland Castle, Sheraton Waikiki, Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II, The Plaza and the Waldorf Towers. His design talent was also put to use in the Charlotte Motor Speedway Clubhouse, the Cleveland Browns uniforms and the USS Sequoia, which is better known as the presidential yacht,” according to an obituary in WWD.
“Most people don’t understand that the visual is everything — the doorknobs, the hardware — I see everything. Rooms talk to me,” Varney once told WWD. “People become more conservative as they get older. They lose the freedom of being a child in the paintbox. They need confirmation and they want to be part of the group.”
Varney’s also owned textile and wallcovering company Carleton V Ltd. He was seen on the “Live Vividly” show on the Home Shopping Network and penned dozens of books, including “There’s No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer,” “In the Pink: Dorothy Draper, America’s Most Fabulous Decorator,” and “Houses in My Heart: An International Decorator’s Colorful Journey.”
Never one to shy away from telling it straight, Varney loved to share his travel experiences and offer bold critiques.
“I once went to a hotel on my way back from Bora Bora, and the carpet was a knobby gray, and the walls were beige with white trim, and the curtains were gray-beige,” Mr. Varney 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.”