Remembering the Life and Work of Decorator Carleton Varney

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Above: Decorator Carleton Varney at a book party in his honor in 2017.

Interior design legend Carleton Varney—known for a client list that ranged from Jimmy Carter to Joan Crawford, but perhaps best known for his work on the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia—passed away last night while traveling in Europe. He was 85.

“Carleton Varney [is] an icon across this nation and world for his incredible insight and expertise in decorating,” West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said during a state briefing yesterday. “Another great, great, great American that we will miss in every way.”

Varney’s legacy is owed, in large part, to Dorothy Draper, a doyenne of American decorating, who welcomed him to the Dorothy Draper & Co. design team on East 57th Street in Manhattan in the early 1960s. Varney, who was born in Massachusetts, had previously kicked off his work life with a teaching stint, with dreams of becoming the American ambassador to Spain, but a chance friendship with former Dorothy Draper & Co. owner Leon Hegwood led him to fulfill his true destiny in decorating.

the greenbrier resort chintz room

A room in the Greenbrier, the iconic West Virginia hotel first designed by Dorothy Draper and faithfully updated by Varney.
The Greenbrier

After buying the company in 1964, Varney parlayed the Draper style through iconic, vibrant furniture, fabrics, and wallcoverings. As the White House design consultant during the Carter administration, he orchestrated events for First Lady Rosalynn Carter and decorated for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to the White House. Over the course of his six-decade-long career, he also left his indelible mark in Michigan, at Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel; again in Washington, D.C., at the vice presidential residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory during the George H.W. Bush administration; and, most famously, in the mountains of West Virginia, on a landmark project he stewarded for 53 years in Draper’s footsteps, the Greenbrier.

Varney described his own style as “happy”—notably, that was also the name of his West Highland terrier—and his keen eye for color was anything but subtle. “His work was so all-American,” says Mark D. Sikes, who has also taken on a job at the White House, redecorating First Lady Jill Biden’s East Wing office. “His sensibilities of color and vibrant patterns, and his take on design, was so optimistic, so happy, so fresh.”

Varney was the author of 37 books, including Kiss the Hibiscus Good Night, The Decorator, Mr. Color: The Greenbrier & Other Decorating Adventures, and a tribute book to Dorothy Draper.

Editor’s note: This is a developing story and will be updated.

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