Interior design icon Carleton Varney passed away last week at the age of 85, leaving behind a lasting legacy in the world of design and spurring countless tributes to his mark on the industry. Known by the moniker “Mr. Color,” Varney’s trademark use of vibrant, joyful hues served as the bedrock of his design philosophy, which garnered high-profile clients such as Joan Crawford and Judy Garland, and eventually spawned 37 books, as well as newspaper columns, TV shows and product lines.
A native of Massachusetts, Varney began his career with a stint in teaching before kicking off his journey in the design industry with a draftsman post at Dorothy Draper & Co. in 1958. There, a friendship with owner Leon Hegwood led him swiftly down the path of design. In 1964, Varney bought the company himself and went on to serve at the helm for 60 years as owner and president.
Before long, he became one of the top voices in the industry, serving as design consultant for the Carter administration and later contributing to projects as exceptional and varied as the vice presidential residence in the U.S. Naval Observatory during the George H.W. Bush administration; the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan; and most famously, The Greenbrier hotel in West Virginia, a 53-year-long project he took over from Dorothy Draper.
By close colleagues, he is remembered as a defining figure in the lives and careers of those around him. Rudy Saunders, an interior designer at Dorothy Draper & Co., grew up vacationing at the Grand Hotel in Michigan and later struck up a letter correspondence with Varney as a fan of his work. The casual connection was enough for Saunders to get his foot in the door with an internship at Dorothy Draper & Co., though he says Varney’s willingness to extend a hand was simply a trademark of the designer’s personality. “He had these famous celebrity and politician clients, but I think he also loved to bring color and spirit and fun into so many people’s homes—with his newspaper column or when he would do his lectures, or even when he did Home Shopping Network,” says Saunders. “It touched so many people.”
“He was truly one of a kind,” says House Beautiful senior style director Robert Rufino. “They don’t make them like that anymore. He was a great original.” Rufino sees his influence in the next generation of designers—talents like Miles Redd, Nick Olsen and Katie Ridder, to name a few—whose use of striking color and patterns harkens back to the legacy that began with Draper and was carried forth in new ways by Varney himself. (That embrace of colorful rooms was something Varney was deeply worried about: “I look at some of the design magazines, they show so much white and beige and colorless rooms, that I’m afraid that the next generation will do even less color,” he told Dennis Scully on a 2019 episode of The Business of Home Podcast.) According to Rufino, Varney’s keen eye for color even manifested in the designer’s signature red socks, which were his good luck charm.
For House Beautiful digital director Hadley Keller, a shared hatred of the color beige sparked a connection between the two, though Varney’s vast knowledge of all things art and design is what struck her most. “He could talk about anything from the history of the design lexicon to stories about Andy Warhol’s factory,” says Keller. His staying power in the design world, she says, has a lot to do with the strength of the philosophy behind his aesthetics—a commitment to color, patterns and objects that bring happiness to the people inhabiting a space.
Pulling from an archive of several sprawling interviews with the designer, Keller penned a tribute to Varney on social media upon hearing of his passing. Her post includes an anecdote from Varney in which he recalled his mother keeping fine china wrapped up to save it for “good”—in other words, to wait for a special occasion. “I was always wondering when ‘good’ was coming,” Keller quotes Varney as saying. “Wonderful should be every day—so I decided long ago I would always use the pretty things.”
Varney is survived by his sister Vivian Varney; and his sons Nicholas Varney, Seamus Varney and Sebastian Varney.
Homepage image: Carleton Varney | Courtesy of Dorothy Draper Co.