BY MARY THURMAN YUHAS
Photography by Mike Wyatt and courtesy of Dorothy Draper & Company Inc.
The affable decorator Carleton Varney began his career not in design but as a schoolteacher. He taught at New Rochelle Academy in New Rochelle, New York, and received a master’s degree in education from New York University. Through his New York connections he met Leon Hegwood, then the senior vice president at Dorothy Draper & Co., the first professional interior design firm in the United States. Eager to enter the industry, Varney did everything from cleaning floors to washing dishes. Though he was not yet professionally trained when he began working for Draper in 1960, he counts his time with her as the ultimate education. “I feel I went to the best interior design school,” he says.
Varney inherited his signature sense of color from his mentor, and went on to work with celebrities like Joan Crawford and landmark hotels worldwide including The Colony in Palm Beach. In 1967, at the age of 30, he bought Dorothy Draper & Co., and remains president of the still thriving group. He’s written more than 30 books and often teaches classes on interior design. Despite his reputation, he refers to himself by a humble term. “[Dorothy Draper] called herself a decorator, so that’s what I call myself,” he says. “That’s what I do—decorate.”
PBI: How does your style differ from Dorothy Draper’s?
CV: Nobody has ever been able to copy her. She grew up in a time when nice ladies never wore lipstick, and she introduced lipstick on her furniture. Walls were painted black and trimmed with white. White polar bear rugs were matched with lime-green pillows. We are very similar in a way, but I have a greater respect for using antiques and personal things. I never throw away things. [They] all have memories, and I try to make the work I do as memorable as possible. I like period accessories?—not as Regency as she’d like. And since I grew up in New England, there is a sense of that in my design.
What inspires your design work?
I like to have a feeling of where I am. I don’t like [taking] myself out of the environment. Nobody wants to go to a castle in Ireland that looks like it’s [on] an island. That’s one of the things that Florida does wrong. Some hotels feel like they’re set in England. People love being in Florida, and they want the Florida environment. I use the colors of Florida, such as hibiscus [hues]. I don’t hate beige, but I like spirited color.
Is there a single most important element in design?
People think furniture is the key, but it’s never the furniture. Furniture is the least important, the background. Finishing the room is what is key: the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the balance at a window. Then bring in the furniture. When you go to a beautiful property like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan or The Colony in Palm Beach, people everywhere are taking pictures. They don’t do that at a Marriott. Every hotel we design is an experience. That shows how much they appreciate it.
You’ve worked with royalty, actors and actresses, and the political elite. You’ve designed castles, hotels, estates, the official residence of the Vice President of the United States, and state functions at the White House. In your vast experience, which project was the most difficult and why?
I have to say, I’m my most difficult client. I have so much experience that I can look at a curtain and know when it’s not made properly or a ceiling with crown molding [that] has been done incorrectly. I see the mistakes, and that’s the frustration.
When you walk into a home without great views or unique architecture, how do you give it the “wow” factor?
We do “wow” factors all the time. I can do a dining room in light blue and paint the walls in the same room bright red. I choose colors to match people’s personalities or to produce different dynamics?—more romantic or more energetic. I change boring details and add window treatments that are interesting, such as shutters that fold in and out. I use architectural details as opposed to cosmetic ones. Putting up pretty wallpaper doesn’t do it. You have to have something solid.
When at a friend’s house, do you ever have the urge to rearrange a room?
I do rearrange rooms but I do it with kindness in my heart. I tend to examine the placement of the furniture in a room when the party ends, not when it begins.
Any memorable client stories you can share?
I have wonderful clients, and I love them all. They’re all so different. When one Palm Beach client saw the library I designed for him, he sat in it and cried. He couldn’t believe it was all for him. It was very touching. I loved him for it.
You are known as Mr. Color and often use bright and bold prints. How does that compare to your personal life?
I’m not 20 anymore. I write my books; On the Waterfront comes out in October. More than half of my time is spent in Palm Beach. I love the Intracoastal and my house in Palm Beach. I love going to my house in Ireland and working in my garden. I’ve never been quiet [but] I don’t like to be obvious and have my face seen at a party. It’s not me. Never was.
Can you tell us about your Palm Beach home?
It’s a one-story pad on the Intracoastal. I bought it and added to it. I call it my blue-ocean house. It’s very contemporary with white linen sofas that are practical and easy to care for. I didn’t want a cookie-cutter house.
What are a few of your go-to Palm Beach haunts?
When I’m in Palm Beach, I have breakfast at Green’s Pharmacy. I sit at the counter, and Carrie (the waitress) knows exactly how I like my omelets. I also enjoy having lunch at The Colony and sitting around the pool. Spending some time at the Palm Beach Par-3 golf course is a great way to spend a day. The Church Mouse is my favorite thrift shop. I go there two to three times a week. I’m happy here. It’s home.