common / Luxe Living

'Mr. Color'

Carleton Varney, out with new book, reflects on six decades of design

Carleton Varney redesigned the lobby of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach.Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Carleton Varney redesigned the lobby of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach.Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.His 34th book published last month, a colorful coffee-table tome titled “Decorating on the Waterfront.” The author, well-known interior designer Carleton Varney, graces its cover in signature South Florida style, sporting an ascot, a pocket square and no socks.

The vision for the book comes from the 80-year-old’s life living on bays, lakes and oceans from Nahant, Mass., to Palm Beach. It takes an artful look at projects along the shores of California, the Caribbean and beyond through stunning images and serene stories.

“I’ve always been on the water,” said Mr. Varney, who grew up in the peninsula town outside Boston and now resides off South Ocean Boulevard.

“Decorating on the Waterfront” is an homage to his experiences, both personally and professionally, and his passion for where land meets sea.

“I love it here,” said Mr. Varney, who travels about half the year for business and also as a much-sought-after guest lecturer. “I love it here not because of the society scene but because I love being able to sit in my living room and see a beautiful view.”

Carleton Varney used more than 300 different fabrics in his redesign of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach.Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Carleton Varney used more than 300 different fabrics in his redesign of The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach.Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.One of his earlier books, 2006’s “In the Pink,” recalls the accomplishments of Dorothy Draper, the famous American decorator for whom he started working fresh out of college.

“It was my first job,” Mr. Varney said. “I was 20 and at the beginning of my career. I would vacuum the floors, deliver and pick up items and actually work beside her.”

He now runs Ms. Draper’s company as CEO, chairman and president. “Ms. Draper really created the business of interior design,” Mr. Varney said. “She was at the forefront.”

Dorothy Draper & Company, established in 1925, is America’s oldest such firm.

Carleton Varney, 80, recently published a coffee-table book. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Carleton Varney, 80, recently published a coffee-table book. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.“There were no schools back then,” Mr. Varney said. “There was no Savannah College of Art and Design. There wasn’t a magazine on the market about decorating. There was a need.”

He worked for Ms. Draper for seven years — she died in 1969 at age 79 — and while he unmistakably has established his own legacy in living rooms, lobbies and luxury properties around the world, he got his chops under her employ.

“Ms. Draper said a room should look decorated before you put any furniture in it, and she was right,” Mr. Varney said. “Many people think that decorating is all about what you buy, what you fill a room with. Everything about decorating is about layers. You pick a schematic, and you have to know who you are within that schematic.

“The truth of the matter is, she was a genius,” he continued. “She became an icon in American design history not so much because of the fact that she did pretty rooms. She became an icon because she created a look.”

Mr. Varney has been dubbed “Mr. Color” for carrying on his mentor’s tradition of bold contrasts and mixing and matching palette shades in unexpected ways.

“I think I see color like other people don’t,” he said.

His favorite? Green.

“Palm-tree green, pine-tree green, jungle-green, I like them all,” Mr. Varney said. “Colors relate to who you are. I don’t like any colors that look like gravy, whether it’s chicken gravy or gravy that’s on meatloaf or any kind of gravy. It’s all terrible.”

Dorothy Draper created the iconic design of The Greenbrier Inn in West Virginia. Above is the hotel’s Trellis Lobby after it was refreshed by Carleton Varney. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Dorothy Draper created the iconic design of The Greenbrier Inn in West Virginia. Above is the hotel’s Trellis Lobby after it was refreshed by Carleton Varney. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Nowhere is his penchant for pop more evident than at The Colony, a classy resort hotel tucked behind Worth Avenue. Out of the hundreds of projects he has taken on during six decades of design, it is one that makes him especially proud.

“It’s the real Florida,” Mr. Varney said, noting he used 300 different types of fabric in the renovation. “When people go there, they revel in the fact that they’re in the real Florida.”

He personalized each guest room and gave it a theme. The garden-inspired villa, for example, has aqua-blue walls, green-and-white carpet and features paintings of botanicals hanging in the living and sleeping areas. “I wanted The Colony to be like a private home,” Mr. Varney said. “No two rooms are alike.”

Mr. Varney with Joan Crawford, for whom he designed an apartment in the late 1960s. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Mr. Varney with Joan Crawford, for whom he designed an apartment in the late 1960s. Image provided courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company, Inc.Among his other successes are The Towers of the Waldorf Astoria and The Plaza, both in New York, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., and The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. His other company, Carleton V, sells a custom line of hue-drenched domestics, including throw pillows and wall coverings, that grace the homes of countless clients. One of them was actress Joan Crawford, whose 12-room Manhattan apartment Mr. Varney decorated.

“She was moving from one apartment to another, and I did some sketches, and she looked at them and said, ‘Uh, uh, Carleton, I just want it to be me,’” he remembered. “To find out the me took years, but I eventually found it out. And that’s something in residential decorating that’s very important to know. You don’t want to infuse somebody else’s house with who you are. You want to infuse it with who they are.”

Another lesson Mr. Varney learned from the Academy Award winner was that he had the opportunity, as a young man, to invent himself.

“I can see her carrot-red hair pulled back, wearing a muumuu, with no makeup, saying, ‘I invented me, and you have the opportunity to invent yourself,’” he remembered. “I never forgot it. All of us have that ability to look at ourselves and think about where we want to go in life.” ¦

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