Designer's palette full of color, full with projects
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. -- Carleton Varney stood talking in a passageway of the cavernous main lobby of The Greenbrier. He suddenly pointed to a tall chest. "That's where the jardinière should go," he said.
There are hundreds of decorative vases, bowls, lamps and figurines throughout the vast public areas of the resort. But Varney was referring to a specific large blue and white ginger jar that was a floor below near the entrance to the casino.
Just moments before his attention had been diverted by a single décor detail, Varney had been broadly outlining all the new projects he has a role in at The Greenbrier: the new Greenbrier train, the medical sports complex, the new condominiums, a decorating seminar.
That's just at The Greenbrier, where the New York interior designer is the curator of the 200-year-old resort.
A few days before, he had been signing his latest book at a party given at Bergdorf Goodman, the exclusive Fifth Avenue store in New York City. "Mr. Color: The Greenbrier and Other Decorating Adventures" is Varney's 27th book.
On the cover is a colorful silk scarf tied like a tie over a red and purple tattersall check shirt. Varney is attired in a similar manner this fall day, along with red socks.
His own line of scarves is carried at The Greenbrier as is the CD he recently released of his favorite easy-listening numbers. His collection of bedding and linens is sold on the Home Shopping Network.
"And there's the business to run," his associate Brinsley Matthews answered a bit wearily when Varney was asked what else is on his plate.
Varney owns the decorating firm started by the legendary Dorothy Draper, whose revamping of The Greenbrier in record time after World War II is retold daily in historical tours of the hotel. Matthews is director of design and operations.
Varney and Mathews have a similar challenge in Brazil at Palacio Quitandinha luxury hotel that they consider to be Draper's best job. Closed for years, the huge state-owned property is being reopened for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Varney's West Virginia history
During one of his monthly visits to The Greenbrier, the tall and tan Varney may be spotted sipping coffee in the new café that bears his name -- as well as photographs of him with Joan Crawford and other celebrities.
Or you might see him sitting on a sofa in the lobby, people-watching. In how many other hotels, he has asked with pride, do you see the guests armed with cameras taking photographs?
At age 74, Varney likes to say he's been involved with The Greenbrier for 40 years. It's more like 50. He writes in his biography about taking the train from New York with Draper in 1960. "My first look at The Greenbrier staggered me," he wrote.
He has other ties to West Virginia. Varney oversaw interior renovations at the Governor's Mansion during the Moore administration, and decorated Dromoland Castle in Ireland, then owned by Parkersburg industrialist Bernard McDonough. Among his many commissions featured in Architectural Digest is the Lewisburg house of the late Lawson Hamilton and his wife.
For years, the Sunday Gazette-Mail carried his syndicated column on decorating, and he still serves as honorary dean of the School of Art and Design at the University of Charleston. Joellen Kerr, who recently retired from the school, is a design director for Varney's firm and keeps tabs on Greenbrier projects.
One the latest projects is the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating hosted by The Greenbrier. Four five-day courses will be held Feb. 26-March 2, March 25-30, April 29-May 4 and June 10-15.
Kerr was quick to point out the course isn't meant to produce professional decorators. There will be guest lecturers and Varney will be present for the entire course. Participants will be able to bring photographs of rooms and fabric samples and get one-on-one consultation on decorating.
The course will cost about $5,000, and hotel and meals about another $2,000. "But what a place to study, where you can see the colors," Matthews pointed out.
The 20-car Greenbrier Presidential Express is on track to arrive in July. The $15 million restoration of the luxury train that will travel between Washington, D.C., and White Sulphur Springs has been underway for months at a closed steel factory in Pottstown, Pa.
Every car will be named for a president who made The Greenbrier their summer home, Varney said.
Designing the interior extends beyond selecting furniture and fabric. It's details such as designing the glass partitions between dining booths and the dinner plates on the tables.
The designers have been given 14 months by Greenbrier owner Jim Justice to compete the interiors of the Global Medical Institute, located across U.S. 60 from the resort.
In August, Justice announced plans to build a $250 million medical complex that will include a sports medicine and rehabilitation center, a cosmetic surgery center and 18 villas, where clients can stay while recuperating.
"Health and happiness" is the decorating concept for the medical office building, Matthews said. "There will no dying flowers," Matthews said, dismissing a color scheme of autumn colors. "That's not us."
He added, "It will have Greenbrier DNA."
Ground has broken on phase one of the institute, which will consist of three separate buildings: a three-story medical office building, a two-story athletic facility, and a one-story building where The Greenbrier Clinic will be relocated.
Then there's the Residences of The Greenbrier that will contain 53 apartments in 16 different configurations. The condominium complex will replace a structure now used as a garage on the north side of the main resort.
Varney said the building will have its own private entrance, as well as direct access to the hotel, and its own heated pool.
It's all about color
Like Varney, Justice's first visit to The Greenbrier made an impression.
"I remember the first time I stepped inside as a child. All the bright colors and flowers made me think I had just landed in Oz, and I was awestruck. I had never seen anything so vibrant and colorful in my life," he wrote in the foreword to Varney's latest book.
It wasn't until he bought The Greenbrier that Justice said he met the man "who was responsible for maintaining the hotel's iconic, color-filled interiors."
"Carleton loves this grand resort as much as I do," Justice noted.
"He knows every nook and cranny of The Greenbrier," Kerr said. "He knows where a lamp used to be and who bought it."
By phone, Varney may instruct her to take the black bench by the entrance to the hotel theater and have it upholstered in a specific material and fabric.
About 40 color pages are devoted to The Greenbrier in Varney's "Mr. Color," in which Varney explained he was trained by Draper, who disliked neutral shades of gray, cream and especially beige. "Show me no gravy," she often told her decorators.
He wrote that in nearly every project he usually uses eight colors: red, black, yellow, green, purple, pink, blue and sky blue. "These colors are my starting point, the palette I keep in mind as I begin."
TV, CDs and more
It was because of his colorful interiors, Varney wrote, that the Home Shopping Network approached him in 2009 about creating a collection of home products. His show, "Live Vividly," is on HSN every six weeks for several live viewings.
Kerr said Varney loves HSN so much because he can share his ideas on it. "He's basically a retailer at heart," she said.
For a recent appearance at the Cleveland Design Center, she said she shipped boxes of Varney's books, scarves and CDs there. They sold out.
During an October trip to The Greenbrier, Varney told how his first CD, "Music with Style," came about.
During dinner with radio personality Rick Dees, "I said that music is as a provocative element of décor as color."
Varney pointed out how hard it was to converse when the background music is Barbra Streisand singing "People." What was needed was music for a cocktail party.
Dees told him to put together songs that he liked. Varney did, about 20 of them, and Dees had the music orchestrated in Hollywood.
All the songs, ranging from "Moon River" to "Stardust" have a special memory or story behind them. Like the time he watched Dusty Springfield in curlers rehearse "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me."
Perhaps Varney will elaborate on his song selections in a 28th book.
Reach Rosalie Earle at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5115.