The Lasting Legacy of Carleton Varney: Designers and Colleagues Share Their Memories of "Mr. Color"

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Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh
Photo credit: Yousuf Karsh


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Iconic interior designer Carleton Varney, affectionately known by many as "Mr. Color," died Thursday, July 14, at the age of 85. We asked his colleagues and fellow designers to share their memories of the formidable designer and the lessons they learned from him.

“He was always very proud of his family and really thought it was his greatest success. He was also someone who easily made and fostered long-term friendships, he was approachable and kind to everyone. Our father really cared about people and was always there for them when they asked for help. I’ve always known this well before his passing, but the sharing of wonderful stories, along with the responses I’ve received (since his death) has shown me just how much of an impact he had on people’s lives personally as much as he did as a designer.” —Sebastian Varney, principal at Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc. and president of Carleton V Ltd.

"Like countless others, I am proud to call him a role model, inspiration, and dear friend. Our team feels wonderfully fortunate to have worked so closely with Mr. Varney and know that anyone who experienced his magic knows what a truly special person he was. He was incredibly giving of his time, creativity, and energy to so many people, especially those he loved. No one can light up a room and fill it with color and panache quite like Mr. Varney. We will strive to celebrate his legacy and continue his colorful, iconic work at Dorothy. Draper & Company." —Rudy Saunders, interior designer at Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc.

“There is always something uniquely American about Carleton Varney’s vision. It is bold, colorful, and fabulously exuberant...like a wizard, he could wave his magic wand and create a world of beauty and joy. Generations to come will be inspired by his work.” —Anthony Baratta, interior designer

"Mr. Varney was a true light, his spirit as buoyant as his decorating style. I was lucky enough to attend the Dorothy Draper Decorating School at the Greenbrier in 2018 with three close friends. He generously shared wisdom, stories, tricks of the trade, and laughter with all attendees. I’ll never forget how he shared that, when starting a new project for a client, he would ask: “What is your first memory of a room?” That question reflected a certain tenderness and love that he clearly channeled into every project." —Steele Marcoux, editor in chief of VERANDA

"I met Carleton almost 25 years ago, and he was always super kind and supportive of my career. Fast forward, and he eventually met my partner, John Loecke, and offered him wonderful advice over the occasional lunch or drinks date. A few years back, John and I were lucky enough to attend his design school at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, and Carleton graciously wrote the introduction to our last book, Prints Charming: Create Absolutely Beautiful Interiors with Prints & Patterns. He was fun, witty, and super smart. And the last of an era. We shall miss him." —Jason Oliver Nixon, founder of Madcap Cottage

"The year was 1975, my first in NYC as an eager student at Parsons. I was invited to visit the apartment of a friend’s father at 980 Fifth Avenue, a swell post-war building at the corner of 79th Street. It was a stunning apartment on a high floor with sweeping views of Central Park and down Fifth Avenue. The interiors had been done by Carleton and were very elegant and super luxe. The main bedroom was swathed in an exuberant, very Carleton printed cotton, but in rather soft tones. The rest of the rooms were actually devoid of printed pattern, not in the signature style of Dorothy Draper and Carleton, but superbly done. The antiques and plush upholstery were covered in gauffraged velvets, satins, and silks. Posh reigned. The man who owned this apartment and his son became my first clients just a few years later, upon graduation in 1978, and I worked with refreshing and repurposing many pieces from 980 for them in their new apartments. Both of them are long dead, but the son’s girlfriend, my bon ami since we were 16, still has some of these pieces, including a zebra framed octagonal mirror from Karl Springer and a suite of sofas and chairs with very '70s bun feet, that furnish her petite chateau. Long live posh! Long live le Roi CV!" —Jamie Drake, interior designer and co-founder of Drake/Anderson

“Carleton first came to The Greenbrier with Dorothy Draper & Company in 1960 and has been an important member of The Greenbrier family for more than 60 years. He played an integral role in establishing and maintaining the iconic look of America’s Resort, and became a friend to hundreds of team members and guests throughout the years. Carleton inspired all with whom he came in contact in so many ways, and his legacy will live on inside these historic walls and around the world for years to come. Carleton loved The Greenbrier, and we loved him equally. He lived a life full of color and cheer, and there is no better way to honor his memory than by all of us doing the same. To say Carleton will be missed at The Greenbrier is an understatement.” —Justice Family, owners of The Greenbrier

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