In Memoriam

Remembering Carleton Varney, a Stylish American Original

The interior designer made his buoyant mark in spaces across the South, from the Greenbrier resort to presidential homes

photo: Brinsley Matthews

Two weeks ago, the iconic interior designer Carleton Varney died at the age of eighty-five in Palm Beach, Florida, ending a storied career that spanned the globe and included penning more than thirty-five books on decorating and design and creating multiple furniture, fabric, and accessory collections bearing his name and colorful touch.

A Massachusetts native, Varney began his career as a schoolteacher in New York, eventually joining the legendary decorator Dorothy Draper’s staff in 1960. He purchased the business four years later, and his love for teaching continued inside the firm, where he most recently mentored current Dorothy Draper vice president Brinsley Matthews. “When Carleton was a teacher, the story goes that he gave everyone an ‘A,’” Matthews says with a laugh. “He really did encourage every single person he worked with, me included.”

In the South, Varney is perhaps most noted for his six decades of contributions to the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. There, he continued the exuberant work originally installed by Draper, transforming the resort into a sort of mecca for those beguiled by the over-the-top Draper ethos. “Carleton was a true artist,” Matthews says. “From a young age, he wanted to be a stage set designer, and in life”—and certainly at the Greenbrier—“he dreamt of the perfect scenes to make his visions a reality.”

And while Varney’s glittery residential client list included Jackie Kennedy, Judy Garland, and Joan Crawford, he formed one of his deepest personal and professional relationships with former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn. “Absolutely every room Carleton decorated for anyone was delightful in a meaningful and magical way, from an attic bedroom to a ballroom,” Matthews remembers. “With the Carters, Carleton loved the down-home feel and look of their two homes in Georgia. He always said that President Carter ‘could make furniture better than the Shakers.’” 

The South and Varney’s Southern clients also allowed him more runway when it came to new ideas. “While Carleton was born in New England and celebrated many traditions there, it was quite stoic for him,” Matthews says. “The charms and gentleness of Southerners, coupled with the architecture and literature, allowed Carleton much more fantasy and creativity.”

photo: Brinsley Matthews

Just before his death, Varney completed the manuscript for his last book. His influence will no doubt live on in its pages and beyond. “Nothing Carleton did was average,” Matthews says. “Everything had a story. His inventiveness in color and pattern entertained on every scale. As the years roll on and the ‘empty refrigerator look’ takes an even stronger hold, Carleton’s legacy will be referenced more and more.”