‘Mr. Color,’ Carleton Varney (1937-2022) 

Interior designer Carleton Varney, nicknamed Mr. Color, passed away on July 14 at the age of 85. Varney is best known for decorating the Greenbrier, a five-star hotel in the mountains of West Virginia. He also had a hand in decorating the West Virginia Governor’s mansion and inspired many of Balfour Senior Living’s interior designs.

He was a resident of West Palm Beach, Florida, and wrote a weekly column for the Palm Beach Daily News. You can read more about Varney’s style on his blog here.

Varney was owner and president of Dorothy Draper & Co., a business founded by Dorothy Draper, who died in 1969. Draper decorated the Greenbrier just after World War II, in bright colors and florals. When Varney bought Draper’s company in 1964 he continued to use of the rainbow of colors, florals and bold contrasts.

“So many hotels today have manufactured glamour,” Varney told the Greenbrier Valley Quarterly. “It feels artificial. The Greenbrier has real glamour and an enormous historical element. It respects its own history. For a while I was afraid it was going to go in the direction of being like the Washington Marriott, which would have been a huge mistake. Jim Justice rescued it. The hotel is better cared for now that it has been at any time in my career.”

Varney also had a hand in decorating the vice president’s residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory during the George H.W. Bush years. Before that, he served as the White House design consultant during the Carter administration. Varney’s signature style was on full display for events for then-first lady Rosalynn Carter and then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s official White House visit.

Varney described his style as “happy” and it shows. His designs were “so optimistic, so happy, so fresh,” said fellow interior designer Mark D. Sikes to Elle Décor. Funny enough, Varney’s dog was also named Happy.

The client list who used Varney reads like a who’s who of classic Hollywood: Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Joan Crawford, Fay Wray and many more. Varney also gave to various charities, including co-chairing (along with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan) the Rita Hayworth Luncheon to benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. Six years ago, he was the design consultant for an event benefitting the Joe Namath Neurological Research Center.

Varney and his former wife Suzanne had three boys — Nicholas, Seamus and Sebastian. He also had a grandson named Bowie.

If there is one thing Varney left behind in his legacy is that he taught us all life is certainly better in color.


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