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Carleton Varney, decorator and longtime Palm Beach Daily News columnist, dies at 85

Posted on July 16 2022

Palm Beach resident Carleton Varney, the internationally known interior designer who owned Dorothy Draper & Co. and whose “Your Family Decorator” column appeared for more than 40 years in the Palm Beach Daily News, died Thursday, July 14, 2022, at a hospital in Palm Beach Gardens. He was 85. 

Known for his gentlemanly grace, business acumen and can-do spirit, Mr. Varney was nicknamed “Mr. Color,” thanks to his brilliant color sense and his liberal use of what he called “happy” and “magical” colors in his decorating projects.  

“Think happy colors for a happy home,” Mr. Varney was fond of saying. 

The same bright hues were favored by his decorating mentor, the late Dorothy Draper, whose New York City firm he joined in 1961, bought in the mid-1960s and ran until his death. The firm is one of the oldest decorating companies in the United States and Mr. Varney fiercely protected and promoted Draper’s decorating legacy as a pioneer in her field. 

“I worked with Dorothy for seven years and I have never really worked anywhere else. It was all destiny,” he once told a writer for Women’s Wear Daily. 

Mr. Varney’s worldwide commissions included designs for residences, commercial establishments, hotels and stores, including many projects in Palm Beach.

Mr. Varney’s bold color combinations — pairing orange with pink, for instance, or turquoise with scarlet — became his decorating trademark, as did his lively designs for fabric and wallcoverings, many with botanical motifs. His late clients ranged from Hollywood stars Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Van Johnson and Fay Wray to the late Broadway star Ethel Merman and the late theatrical producer James “Jimmy” Nederlander and his late wife, Charlene. 

“While Miss Merman wanted sparkly red, white and blue in her homes — I decorated three for her — Miss Garland was more sedate, preferring sunshine yellow walls, white trim and carpeting of spring green,” he wrote in one of his Your Family Decorator columns.

The column was an extension of the decorating-columnist tradition started by Draper. At one point, Mr. Varney's column was syndicated and appeared in newspapers across the country. 

He was a White House decorating consultant during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. He decorated homes for the Carters and two vice presidents — Dan Quayle and the late Walter Mondale. In 2018, then-President Donald Trump announced he would nominate Mr. Varney to serve on the National Council on the Arts. 

“You might say I'm a bipartisan designer,” he once quipped. 

Family came first for Mr. Varney

And although he prized his career, his family came first, said Sebastian Varney, one of his three sons by his ex-wife, the late Suzanne Varney. 

“He really thought his family was his greatest success,” Sebastian Varney said Friday, noting that his father also was adept at making and fostering friendships. 

“He cared about people and was just there for them when they asked for help,” his son said. “I knew it before, but the response I’ve gotten (since his death) has shown me how much of an impact he had on people’s lives personally as much as he did as a designer.” 

Brinsley Matthews, Mr. Varney’s right-hand man at the company and his longtime companion, described him as “a beautiful soul in every way.” 

Work was represented in many hotels

Mr. Varney was a prolific author who wrote more than 30 books on decorating and other subjects. His latest was published last month — a deluxe and expanded reissue of his 1988 biography of his mentor, “The Draper Touch: The High Life and High Style of Dorothy Draper.” 

He served as chief decorator for The Greenbrier, the venerable resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, where his designs honored the legacy of Draper, who first decorated the hotel after World War II ended. 

Over his long career, Mr. Varney decorated many other hotels in the United States, the Caribbean and abroad. His American projects include his longtime tenure as the head decorator at The Grand on Mackinac Island in Upper Michigan. In Palm Beach, he designed for The Breakers, where he oversaw the restoration of the famous Circle Dining Room; the Brazilian Court, which he painted bright yellow; and The Colony. At the latter, he completed a top-to-bottom, multi-year renovation in 2014 – colorful, of course. He also chose the hue for the exterior – a custom color known as Wolcott Salmon. 

Roger Everingham, who was general manager of The Colony at the time of the redecoration, first met Mr. Varney more than 50 years ago and counted him as a good friend. 

Everingham mentioned Mr. Varney’s remarkable memory when it came to people he had met during his career and how he could recall minute details about people that others might have forgotten. 

“He was always a quick guy with a story,” Everingham said. “He seemed to know everyone in the world – movie stars, and everyone else.” 

He added: “He was really a light that brought joy to so many people.” 

Born, raised in Massachusetts

Massachusetts native Carleton Bates Varney Jr. was born in Lynn on Jan. 23, 1937, to Julia and Carleton Varney Sr., who both died in middle age. In his youth, Mr. Varney lived in Nahant on the coast. He never lost his Yankee accent.

He earned his bachelor's degree in Spanish and Fine Arts from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1958 and his master’s degree in Fine Arts Education in 1969 from New York University. After an initial foray as a teacher, he discovered his talent for decorating.

But his love of teaching continued. He was a frequent lecturer about design and founded the Carleton Varney School of Art & Design at the University of Charleston in West Virginia, which also awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 1987. 

Among his residential projects in the United States and abroad, he decorated the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion in Charleston and the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Tokyo, along with several Irish castles. 

He designed collections of furnishings, decorative accessories, fabrics, wallcoverings, carpets and dinnerware, among other items. He sold some of his products on the television shopping network HSN.

In 1973, he co-founded with his wife the fabric and wallcovering firm Carleton V Ltd., which today is run by Sabastian Varney. His other fabric lines include Carleton Varney by the Yard and Dorothy Draper Fabric and Wallcoverings.

In addition to his Palm Beach residence, Mr. Varney had homes in New York and Ireland. After years in New York City, Dorothy Draper & Co. is today headquartered in West Palm Beach.

Mr. Varney was a quietly spiritual man, according to those who knew him.

“I think the Guy up above has a big control on our lives,” Mr. Varney once said. “I want to know that I have lived the life where I don’t have to worry where I go after I stop breathing.”

In addition to Matthews and his son Sebastian, Mr. Varney is survived by his sister, Vivian Varney; son Seamus Varney; son Nicholas Varney (Victoria Bratberg); grandson Bowie Varney; niece Amanda Guyler; and grand-niece Luisa Chan. 

Arrangements have not been finalized.


Darrell Hofheinz is a USA TODAY Network of Florida journalist. Email



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