Carleton Varney, interior designer known as Mr. Color, dies aged 85 – The New York Times | Hot Mobile Press

Carleton Varney, the exuberant interior designer whose enthusiastic use of color in hotels, castles, palaces, and the living quarters of movie and theater kings — and one president — earned him the nickname Mr. Color, died July 14 in Palm Beach, Florida. He was 85.

His son Sebastian confirmed death in a hospital but did not provide any information about the cause.

Mr. Varney was trained by maximalist decorator Dorothy Draper, known for her Hollywood Regency flourishes — huge stripes, hot colors, and swirls of plaster relief — whose company he eventually bought in the 1960s. (In describing Mrs. Draper’s style, columnists typically engage in hyperbole: “Close your eyes and imagine the fanciest movie set you’ve ever seen,” one wrote of the Palácio Quitandinha, a Brazilian hotel that she in the 1940s. “Multiply by six and add ten.” Esquire magazine wrote of her work: “You breathe in elegance, and after you straighten your tie, you breathe it out again.”)

Mr. Varney learned from Mrs. Draper that every room needs a touch of black and maybe a mirrored wall. He learned to mix at least three or four prints and patterns per room; He also learned that vertical stripes make any room appear larger.

Mrs. Draper often declared, “Don’t show me anything that looks like gravy!” Mr. Varney inherited her dislike of fade and beige, which he felt were bad for the psyche.

“I once walked into a hotel on my way back from Bora Bora and the carpet was knotty gray, the walls were beige with white trim, and the curtains were grey-beige,” he told The Washington Post in 2020. “Even the art was beige. I walked into the travertine bathroom and when I came out I thought I was naked in a bowl of oatmeal.”

Mr. Varney’s clients were as bold as his colors. Mr. Varney dressed an apartment in patriotic red, white and blue for Ethel Merman, who displayed a fully decorated artificial Christmas tree year-round wherever she lived. Judy Garland’s color scheme was light green and bright yellow. For an unnamed male client, he wrapped a bedroom in peacock blue velvet and satin and designed a closet to match the man’s SM attire. (The room was featured in a French porn magazine.)

Joan Crawford liked yellow and orange; she also liked white walls, except in her bedrooms, which she always painted a pale pink. She told Mr Varney, as he observed in ‘Houses in My Heart’ (2008): ‘A pink bedroom never robbed a man of his manhood. It only made it better.”

She also insisted that all her upholstered furniture be upholstered in easy-to-clean plastic. “Joan had more plastic on her furniture than on the meat counter at A.&P. Supermarket,” Mr Varney said.

But he liked his eccentric client, who once asked him to be her constant companion. (He declined.) He recalled her advising him, “I invented myself, and you can invent yourself.” As a result, he said, he developed a signature look, favoring red socks and multicolored silk scarves, often by Hermès which had been cut in half by a tailor and which he would knot and wear like a tie.

“Dorothy Draper would cut everything in half — paintings, antique furniture — it didn’t matter,” he said, “so I guess I’ll do the same.”

Mr. Varney “looked like his interior,” said Cindy Adams, the caustic gossip columnist from New York City, in a phone interview. “Casual and colorful and a bit over the top. He loved his clients, and he loved talking about the prince of this and that, but more than anything he loved the public. I adored him.”

Stephen Drucker, a former editor of House Beautiful and Martha Stewart Living, said Mr Varney was one of the last links to “the great decorators who started the profession” and “the old New York world of Hampshire House, the Colony.” . Club and Sutton Place.”

He added: “I remember reading his newspaper column religiously from the ’60s and his solution to every problem was to paint it coral pink, delphinium blue or daffodil yellow. Dorothy Draper was tame compared to him. His use of color was psychedelic and one can poke fun at it, but it takes a very special gift to be able to design spaces like he did.”

During the Carter administration, Mr. Varney served as a White House design advisor and decorated state dinners and other events. When the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was signed in 1979, President Carter and his wife Rosalynn hosted a dinner for 1,340 on the South Lawn of the White House; Mr. Varney covered the tables with a forsythia pattern and placed them in an orange tent. He also decorated the Carters’ log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains in early Americana style – although Mr. Carter made much of the furniture himself, including the couple’s four-poster bed.

In 1980, Mr. Varney designed souvenirs for the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. These included tote bags, umbrellas, and scarves, all made from a quilted fabric printed with white and green stars and stripes (green was Mr. Varney’s favorite color and also a favorite color of President Carter).

Although the convention was a bumpy one—Senator Edward M. Kennedy wanted to take the nomination from the incumbent, and his aides and President Carters almost got into fights—Mr. Varney’s contributions went smoothly.

Over the years, Mr. Varney designed fabrics, furniture, shoes, hats and table accessories such as napkins, trays and candles, as well as candy-colored reading glasses and, in the 1960s, lighters designed to look like gilded ice cream cones.

In 1974, a company that owned a fleet of New York City cabs commissioned Mr. Varney to dress up their Checker Cabs, which he did with bright red seat belts, sky blue interior paint, green and white checkered vinyl seats, and green jump seats. “Drab Cab Goes Fab,” declared Time Magazine. A satisfied cab driver told The New York Times he earns $4 more in tips every day driving his refurbished hack.

Carleton Bates Varney was born on January 23, 1937 in Lynn, Mass. and grew up in nearby Nahant. He was named after his father, who owned a sporting goods store; his mother, Julia Catherine Mary Raczkowskos Varney, was a homemaker.

He studied Spanish at Oberlin College in Ohio and earned a Master of Arts from New York University School of Education, now the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, in 1960. He spent a year teaching Spanish, English, and history in Westchester County. He was also an artist, and when he met Leon Hegwood, a Texas decorator who had taken over Mrs. Draper’s company, he was hired as a draftsman. (Ms. Draper stayed with the company for a time. She died in 1969.)

In addition to his son Sebastian, Mr Varney is survived by two other sons, Nicholas and Seamus; his partner Brinsley Matthews, vice president of Dorothy Draper & Company; a grandson; and a sister, Vivian Varney. His 1968 marriage to Suzanne Lickdyke, also a designer, ended in divorce.

Mr Varney is the author of more than 30 books on decoration and two novels. His latest book, The Draper Touch: The High Life and High Style of Dorothy Draper, was released this month. His weekly advice column, Your Family Decorator, ran for more than 50 years and was syndicated for decades. It last appeared only in The Palm Beach Daily News.

Of the hundreds of hotels that Mr. Varney helped decorate – including a Sheraton in Waikiki for which he hired Margaret Keane to paint wide-eyed portraits of Native Hawaiian waifs – the Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, W.Va., is perhaps his most flamboyant.

Parts of it were first built in 1778; It was a massive resort in the 1940s that Dorothy Draper called “a Brobdingnagian monster of a bowling alley” before revamping the place from bow to stern. She remained his decorator until Mr. Varney assumed that role in the 1960s and he increased his draperism: adding curtain valances that look like giant bow ties, redesigning lobbies and entire wings (it now has more than 700 rooms), gilding bas- Reliefs, painting walls in turquoise or tomato red, laying psychedelic carpets of his own design, among many interventions over the last half century.

“I’ve spent 54 years opening the windows and doors of America to color,” Mr. Varney said in 2020. “I believe color has a profound impact on people’s minds, thoughts and attitudes. A nice, sunny room makes you happy. I think kids who grow up in pretty, colorful and magical spaces are better people.”

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