Design Experts

Inside design: Carleton Varney

Inside design: Carleton Varney

Inside design: Carleton Varney Author: Style At Home

Design Experts

Inside design: Carleton Varney

Carleton Varney, designer and president of Dorothy Draper & Company, the oldest established interior design house in North America. He’s a charming southern gentleman (the kind who sings “ Unforgettable” to you over the phone) who has filled epic shoes and continues to bring the world vibrant, voluminous and versatile designs with a nostalgia that’s always “now.”

The handcrafted Moroccan-inspired ceiling is a focal point of this sitting room. Photograpy by Michel Arnaud.

STYLE AT HOME Tell us about working with Dorothy Draper.
Carleton Varney Few have ever met her standard and few ever will. I worked with Dorothy for seven years when I was in my 20s. She was overwhelming in every way – a gladiator. She always wore white gloves and would gesture and say, “Show me nothing that looks like gravy.” Dark or light, if it looked like stuffing or gravy, she didn’t like it. To this day, I still decorate with magical colour, but I don’t resent people who’ve done their homes in all cream and beige.

SAH To each their own, right?
CV I always say that there’s no good taste or bad taste, just taste. Once, on the way back from Marlon Brando’s island in the South Pacific, I stayed in a hotel room that had cream vinyl walls, a woven creamy beige headboard, tan sheets, beige blankets, a beige-and-brown carpet and beige lacquered furniture. I remember walking into my room after taking a shower, thinking, “Here I am, naked in a bowl of oatmeal.” But many people live in a bowl of oatmeal and love it. carleton-varney-proudestmoment.jpg
This sitting room in a Michigan lakeside home pays homage to the nearby water.
Photography by Michel Arnaud.

SAH Was there a huge sense of responsibility being chosen as the vessel to carry on Dorothy Draper’s name?
CV There’s no question about it – it was huge. But I’m not overwhelmed by it. It was destiny. Somebody had to do it!

SAH Looking back on your career, what’s your proudest moment?
CV I was Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s decorator, as well as Dan Quayle’s when he was vice-president. I always say it’s nice to have been the White House decorator, because not everybody can be.

SAH Tell us about your new line with The Shopping Channel in Canada.
CV I’m really looking forward to it. It was their idea – they thought my taste was a good match for the Canadian market. It will be available in 2012.

An example of Carleton Varney’s colourful aesthetic: the dining room of a Michigan cottage.
Photography by Michel Arnaud.

SAH What colours are you craving in your own home this year?
CV Oh, I have different houses in different places, each with a different sensibility. My place in Florida, for example, is all blue and white – everything, in every room, except a few yellow ceilings. It’s like the ocean with dashes of sunshine.

SAH And other than your beach home?
CV I love the colour green: dark green, light green – it’s very pine forest, very jungle. Whether I’m in a warm climate or a cold climate, green makes the most wonderful, soothing background. I love dark green in a small room. Many people paint small rooms light colours, like white or cream, but I always paint them dark colours like forest green, sapphire blue or sable brown.


An example of Carleton Varney’s colourful aesthetic: his own living room’s china cabinet.
Photography by Michel Arnaud.

SAH Why do you choose darker colours for smaller rooms?
CV Because I want the rooms to be more intimate. You’re not going to be able to make a small room bigger, no matter what colour you paint it. I don’t care if you mirror it all over – it’s always going to fit the same amount of furniture. My advice for a small room is to choose a nice loveseat and a comfortable chair, a corner table and a beautiful mirror, and make it cozy with lots of books and lights.

SAH In terms of decorating, how much is too much?

CV It depends on the gradation and scale of the patterns. A country garden has many flowers, and it’s beautiful. So I know that I can take six, 10, 12 different prints, and if they’re all related in the garden, I can make them work. It’s not about having money. I can make a room work with $5,000.

SAH So what’s your advice to budding interior designers?

CV Stay on track. Never give up. Keep going. And keep your eyes open and absorb as much as this wonderful world has given you to see!

Photography courtesy istockphoto.

SAH What’s your favourite product from your line on HSN?
CV I love my Staffordshire dog – its story is very meaningful to me. In 1800s England, dogs like these were made by mothers and their children in factories while the fathers were at sea. So if you bought a pair of dogs, the child would have painted one, and the mother, the other. The look in the dogs’ eyes – in the child’s there was always a sense of naïveté, and in the mother’s… well, the two dogs would never be the same. These dogs were also called comfort dogs. At Christmas, the little children whose parents couldn’t afford real dogs would get a comfort dog as their plaything. The dogs were brown, marbled, black and white, but the year Queen Victoria died, they were all black.

Photography by Michel Arnaud

SAH What was the impetus behind Mr. Color?

CV Colour is the most important tool in interior decorating. Think colour for a happy home. That’s the strongest message in the book.


Photography courtesy John Engstead/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images.

SAH What was it like working with Joan Crawford?

CV Joan was my dream. I was her interior decorator for 21 years. She understood me and I understood her. One day, she looked at me with those big eyes and said, “Remember one thing, Carleton: I invented me.” And I never forgot that. It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me ever since. You have the chance – everybody has the chance – to make yourself. It’s the destiny of life: what you wish to do and to be. And I’ve done it with my life. carelton-varney-memorableclient.jpg
Photography courtesy RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images.

SAH Tell us about some of your other memorable clients.

CV Do you know who Fay Wray was? Her biggest role was Ann Darrow in King Kong. When I was decorating her apartment, she was 92 years old and still had every marble in her head. I asked, “Ms. Wray, you’re 92 years old – why do you want to change this apartment? It’s perfectly nice as it is.” She said to me: “I love to look at new colours. New flowers make me feel good. A new lampshade, a new carpet, a new throw to brighten up my room – all those things make me know I’m alive, when most people think I’m not.” So it isn’t over until the fat lady sings. Decorating doesn’t stop. carleton-varney-favproject.jpg
Photography courtesy The Greenbrier Hotel

SAH Do you have a favourite project?

CV The Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was major. Now I’m working on the Greenbrier Presidential Express, a train that runs to the doors of the hotel from Union Station in Washington, D.C. It’s going to be the most luxurious train the world has ever seen.


Share X
Design Experts

Inside design: Carleton Varney