His son Sebastian Varney confirmed his death but did not cite a cause.
Mr. Varney was the president and owner of the Manhattan-based firm Dorothy Draper & Co., the namesake of the venerable decorator who hired him as a draftsman when he was in his early 20s and schooled him in the unabashedly colorful vision of design that became his calling card.
“Mrs. Draper didn’t like anything that looked like it could be poured over a turkey,” Mr. Varney once told the Houston Chronicle. “No fabrics that look beige, gray or mousy or gravy-like,” he recalled to another interviewer.
Mr. Varney purchased the Draper firm in the mid-1960s. Over nearly six decades, he offered guests at White House state dinners, his marquee private clients, and visitors to resorts including the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. — one of his signature projects — a vibrant antidote to the neutral colors of the modern world.
“I once went to a hotel on my way back from Bora Bora, and the carpet was a knobby gray, and the walls were beige with white trim, and the curtains were gray-beige,” Mr. Varney told The Washington Post in 2020. “Even the art was beige. I went into the travertine bathroom, and when I came out, I thought I was naked in a bowl of oatmeal.”
Pro tip from the Greenbrier’s interior designer: Embrace color and shun beige
Mr. Varney’s stories about his clients were as nearly as colorful as the coverings he ordered up for their walls. Crawford hired him to decorate the apartment she acquired when she could no longer afford the $3,000 monthly upkeep of her previous one.
She called him in tears, Mr. Varney said, when her bill came due and she could not pay because the sale of her penthouse was not yet final. In the end, Mr. Varney said, she paid every penny she owed. She also offered him a job as her “permanent escort,” which he declined.
For Ethel Merman, Mr. Varney designed an apartment in a red, white and blue motif; for the emotionally fragile Judy Garland, he recalled, he “put soft yellow backgrounds in her home … that made her happy.”
His color schemes drew admirers far beyond Hollywood, including in the comparatively staid environs of Washington, where Mr. Varney was a go-to designer for President Jimmy and first lady Rosalynn Carter. With only five days’ notice, The Post reported, he organized a dinner to celebrate the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Under a yellow, white and orange tent, guests dined at tables bedecked in cloths bearing a forsythia pattern.
The Carters hired Mr. Varney to decorate their home in the Plains, Ga., as well as their second home, a log cabin in the Georgia foothills. In subsequent Republican administrations, Mr. Varney did work for the Reagans and the Quayles, proving that the appeal of bright color transcends party lines.
Mr. Varney oversaw the refurbishment of the Sequoia, the onetime presidential yacht that Carter sold as an “unjustified and unnecessary frill,” as well as official locations including the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo.
Besides the Greenbrier (whose color palette had been set by Dorothy Draper), the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, the Colony Palm Beach in Florida and the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan all bear his mark.
That mark was not to everyone’s liking.
“The Greenbrier is anything but subtle,” a Post reporter wrote some years after a $50 million renovation curated by Mr. Varney. “The resort … feels like the aftermath of a paintball game held during a garden party. Whack — mint green. Splat — canary yellow. Oof — teal blue.”
But the style was inimitable, and it was his.
“I have spent 54 years trying to open the windows and doors of America to color,” Mr. Varney said in 2020. “I believe color has a total effect on people’s heads, minds and attitudes. A beautiful sunny room makes people happy. I think children who grow up in rooms that are pretty and colorful and magical are better people.”
Carleton Bates Varney Jr. was born in Lynn, Mass., on Jan. 23, 1937. His father ran a sporting goods store, and his mother was a homemaker.
Mr. Varney was a 1958 graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and received a master’s degree in education from New York University in 1960.
He taught at private schools in New Rochelle, N.Y., and in Manhattan before working briefly in fashion and then embarking on his design career. He had hoped to be a theatrical set designer, he said, but found no such job available without a “connection. ”
When he joined Dorothy Draper’s firm, he “did everything — vacuuming the floor and emptying the wastebasket,” he told the Chronicle in 2018. “In fact, I still do all of that.” Draper died in 1969.
Mr. Varney’s design empire also included the textile and wallcovering company Carleton V Ltd.
He hosted the show “Live Vividly” on the Home Shopping Network and wrote more than three dozen books, among them “There’s No Place Like Home: Confessions of an Interior Designer” (1980), “In the Pink: Dorothy Draper, America’s Most Fabulous Decorator” (2006), “Houses in My Heart: An International Decorator’s Colorful Journey” (2008) and “Mr. Color: The Greenbrier and Other Decorating Adventures” (2011).
Mr. Varney’s marriage to Suzanne Lickdyke ended in divorce. Survivors include their three sons, Nicholas Varney of West Palm Beach, Seamus Varney of Edmeston, N.Y., and Sebastian Varney of Stanfordville, N.Y.; a sister; and a grandson.
Mr. Varney’s taste for bright colors extended to his sartorial choices. He was partial to green pants (green was an “influential color” in his life, he said) and red socks. He wore a scarf as a tie.
“I’m not trying to change the world,” he told the New York Times in 2012, “but I’m trying to make people aware of the one thing I believe most in — that color is magic.”