Meet Carleton Varney, the Decorator Behind Mackinac Island’s Iconic Grand Hotel

We take a lesson from the timeless decorator Carleton Varney at Grand Hotel. Stripes and geraniums anyone?

This story is featured in the July 2018 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.

Carleton Varney, one of the world’s most well-known decorators, knows people by color.

Take Barbara Bush for example. Carleton pictures her white hair, thinks of Maine and how she loved the sea—she’s blue, a light blue person. Nancy Reagan loved to be on stage, she was bright red, he says. And Lady Bird Johnson? Yellow, of course, like a Texas rose.

You know Carleton, owner and president of Dorothy Draper and Company, as the man responsible for creating Grand Hotel’s iconic look. He’s also taken over the decorating at The Greenbrier in West Virginia, The Waldorf Towers in New York City, Ireland’s Dromoland and Ashford Castles, and more than 380 other hotels if his counting is correct. Add to that list numerous other resorts and the private residences of celebrities and presidents.

Carleton is also an author with more than 30 books to his name, a frequent newspaper columnist, and he still finds time to design home decor, jewelry, and scarves—so many scarves he can’t remember how many. He’s wearing one right now, a brilliant splash of pink and green, fixed around his neck like a tie.

It’s 10 a.m. on a blue-sky, 70-degree day on Mackinac Island. About 30 of us wait outside the Terrace Room at Grand Hotel; two friends from Seattle, a woman from Amarillo, Texas, a mother and daughter celebrating a girls’ weekend, and, to my delight, Dorothy Draper’s great-granddaughter, Emma Jay Byfield. She actually resembles the photos I’ve seen of Dorothy, with the exception of her tattoos and blonde hair. This is her first time visiting the Grand. (Photo of Emma at the end of the article.) 

“My great-grandmother has undoubtedly influenced my personal style,” Emma says. “I adore black and white marble floors, vertically striped wallpapers, and fabulous colorful fabrics, and I am inspired by her and her life’s work on a daily basis. I often ask myself, ‘What would Dorothy do?’ when confronted with a design opportunity.”

We’re both about to find out exactly what Dorothy would do.

The left door swings open promptly on the hour revealing Mr. Varney. Welcome to the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating.

Getting to Know “Mr. Color”

Carleton was raised in a time before television dinners and air conditioning. Slipcovers ran rampant. His grandmother would scold him if he had a crease in his school shirt. (To avoid that line, use a sleeveboard, she always said.) He recalls a room on the third floor of her home in Boston. She kept her linens there—rolled, not folded—along with silver candlesticks, pillows, tapestries. Everything that was important to her was kept safe, and untouched, in that room. “I’ve never lived that way,” Carleton says. “I live with the good things and enjoy them when I can enjoy them.”

Before he was a decorator, Carleton was a schoolteacher in upstate New York. He taught sixth- and seventh-grade English and Spanish in the upper and lower school. He met Dorothy in his 20s. She reminded him of a Roman gladiator. “She was a woman of great stature and often wore capes, very long capes, always with a big colorful hat.”

In 1925, Dorothy started an interior design company, Architectural Clearing House, later renamed Dorothy Draper & Company. She was the first female decorator to specialize in commercial projects, which included a complete redesign of The Greenbrier and jet plane interiors for Convair and Trans World Airlines. “When you consider she was a woman who grew up in Victorian and Edwardian times and ended up in her career designing a jet plane, that wasn’t easy in those years,” Carleton says.

Napoleon Suite

More impressively, Carleton adds, Dorothy was never educated about the principles of design. (Though she probably wouldn’t have followed them anyway. If it looked right to Dorothy, it was right.) “She created a look. How you’ll always identify a Frank Lloyd Wright house, you’ll always identify a Dorothy Draper room,” he says.

Her look? Modern Baroque.

Bold might be the best way to describe it. She paired cabbage rose chintz with black and white stripes, painted walls turquoise, and covered floors in bright green carpets. “Dorothy came in an era that was all brown,” Carleton says. “She came after the war.” (World War I ended in November 1918, seven years before Dorothy started her company.)

Carleton was hired at Dorothy Draper & Co. in 1962 to create designs for Dorothy Draper Fabric & Wallcoverings. She would walk down the line of desks and say, “Show me nothing that looks like gravy.”

The office was all black—the ceilings, the walls. Carleton remembers every detail—the boardroom’s long, white table and black patent leather chairs with gold nail heads. “When Dorothy would present a project, she wore white gloves so the colors would stand out, he says. “There was a theater to it.”

Carleton purchased controlling stock in the company four years later. By age 30, he was president.

Musser Suite

Dorothy Draper School of Decorating

It’s now 10:05 a.m. and we’ve all claimed a seat in the Terrace Room (here’s a virtual tour). Most evenings you’ll find crowds here dancing to live music by the Grand Hotel Orchestra—that’s why the room’s ceiling and stage curtain are light pink. Carleton always does ballrooms in “pretty colors”—pinks—because they reflect nicely on faces.

On the table in front of me are coloring book pages of various rooms, color wheels, a color chart from the Dorothy Draper/Carleton Varney paint collection, and a light blue ribbon that will certify I’ve been “color approved” at the end of class. The man sitting in front of me wore a custom-made Brazilliance suit to last night’s cocktail reception. If you haven’t seen it before, Brazilliance is a pattern of green banana leaves and grape clusters on a white background. Today, he’s wearing a polo shirt with blue and lime green stripes.

Carleton sits at the front of the class, crossing his legs to reveal bright red socks that match his glasses. Two statues of Chinese guardian lions sit on either side of him. He bought them in Hong Kong years ago.

Terrace Room

Carleton tells us he doesn’t believe in good taste or bad taste. There is just taste. What’s the first room you remember? Think about it for a minute. Is it a kitchen? A living room? What was the feeling? Was the wall brick or painted? What did the windows look out to? That first room is the foundation of your taste, he explains.

“Taste is like fog. This morning you woke up and had sunshine. Sometimes we wake up and see the fog rolling in. Fog is interesting to me because you can see it and you can feel it, but you can never touch it. You can’t taste it. And that’s what you’re about. There’s a feeling about you that comes out as you breathe.

“The most important part of the whole picture is you. A room should look like you before any furniture goes into it. You can take the very same physical space, the very same room, and you might paint the room bright red with a gold trim and do the ceiling in black with a crystal chandelier. Another person might take that room and paint it light blue with a soft yellow trim. It says a different thing about you.”

Rosalynn Carter Suite

Between tips like “experiment with paint colors that are actually on the wall”—because dark colors dry lighter and light colors dry darker—Carleton shares stories. Like the first time he met Joan Crawford. She was moving out of her Fifth Avenue Apartment on East 70th Street. Before moving into her new 12-room apartment, all of the furniture had to be outlined on the floor with tape. She walked around like it was an empty movie set switching on a light, walking to the coffee table. “There were many changes. We’d pull up the masking tape. We’d move it to another room. That was how she functioned.”

He tells us about the time the First Lady asked him to educate her staff about which utensils to use at dinner service. He won’t say which First Lady, but he does let us know he was a consultant for several White House parties and State Dinners during the Carter administration.

Stories about Dorothy are peppered in too. Like the time Dorothy and a friend were playing at her New York home in Tuxedo Park. They went down to the basement, which had a single door that opened up from the floor. The door fell shut after the girls descended and they were trapped in the dark until a nanny found them hours later. That’s why she liked bright colors. “She always wanted to be in the light,” Carleton says.

Carleton Varney Suite

The noon lunch break approaches. Carleton opens up the floor to questions. A woman asks, “Do you ever find you know too much about being a designer?” Carleton laughs. “I don’t know whether I know too much or I’m cuckoo.”

I’ll let you decide. Some people count sheep before bed. Carleton looks at walls and counts pattern repeats. He can mix 25, or more, different patterns in one room. In fact, he dreams rooms and lives in a constant state of fantasy.

Carleton’s phone rings, “Let me see if it’s Melania [Trump],” he laughs. He’s joking. Well, sort of. He’s working on a scarf for her.

Note: The 4th Annual Dorothy Draper School of Decorating is July 6–8, 2018. View the hotel package.

Musser Suite

Decorating Grand Hotel

Carleton was hired in 1976 by Dan Musser Jr. and his wife, Amelia, to redesign the hotel—right down to the menus and matches. The architecture and flowers sparked his imagination.

“Walking through this hotel is like walking through a garden,” he says. “I’ve always thought of decorating as the extension of the garden. When you walk through, you see all the trees and flowers, and there’s a leveling of it. The hollyhocks are high. The delphiniums are lower. Then you get into the border flowers. That is what a room is like to me.

“It’s like a body. You’re naked. You begin layering the room, and you begin putting together the environment you’d like to have.”

No two guest rooms are the same at Grand Hotel—no small feat considering there are 393. Carleton has his favorites: The Napoleon, Josephine, Esther Williams and Vanderbilt suites make the list.

Woods Restaurant

The entire hotel is a melting pot of treasures and decor from across the world—a zebra head mount at Woods Restaurant, chandeliers from London, bamboo from a room divider Carleton found in Tokyo.

Likewise, each of the Grand’s eight eateries are distinctly different. The Jockey Club, located across the street at The Jewel golf course, is a casual venue with, as you might guess, an equestrian theme. Green jockey helmets hang over tables, reimagined as lamps. A mile away, Austrian steak soup and Hungarian beef goulash are being plated at Woods Restaurant. Diners take a horse-drawn carriage through dense woods to the Tudor mansion built in 1905. Red walls and ceilings are adorned with moose mounts and antler chandeliers. After dinner, guests can bowl on America’s oldest operating duckpin bowling alley.

“This hotel once thought it’d just be regional. It’s not,” Carleton says. “It’s really a very national hotel. There’s nothing like Grand Hotel. You can’t compare this to anything.”

The Jockey Club

It’s been more than 40 years since Carleton was hired, and his job at Grand Hotel still isn’t done. Just two months ago, two renovated suites made their debut—the Prentiss M. Brown Suite and the Lilac Suite.

Enjoy this video of the Prentiss M. Brown Suite by Grand Hotel. 

In fact, the job will never be finished. “Decorating never ends because it’s a reflection of you, and as long as you’re alive, you’ll make new memories,” he says. Memories are Carleton’s specialty.

Years ago, Carleton was throwing a 75th birthday party at The Greenbrier. The client had given him one million dollars to spend on the two-night affair, and the theme was Casablanca—the client’s favorite movie. It was an extravagant event. Carleton even found a plane for the room with lights, sound, and smoke coming out the back.

On the second night, a tipsy woman came up and asked, “Mr. Varney, I know you do a lot of things, but what do you really do for a living?”

“That’s an interesting question,” he replied. “You know, what I do is sell memories. I hope from this evening you carry with you the best of memories.”

Beautiful days, bright colors, and magical surprises that make people happy. That’s what Mr. Varney really represents, and that’s what you’ll experience at Grand Hotel.


Note: Six months after attending the Dorothy Draper School of Decorating, Draper’s great-granddaughter, Emma Jay Byfield left her career in finance and took a job as an in-home design specialist for a vintage-inspired lighting and homewares retailer. Eventually, she hopes to build her own interior decorating business near her home in Seattle.

Emma Jay Byfield

Carly Simpson is web editor of MyNorth.com and Traverse Magazine. [email protected] // Andrejka Hirsch is a destination lifestyle and editorial photographer based in Northern Michigan.

Enjoy more photos of Grand Hotel and the event …

Vanderbilt Suite

Vanderbilt Suite

Dinner invitation from Gloria Vanderbilt

Carleton collects Staffordshire dog figurines

Rosalynn Carter Suite

Rosalynn Carter Suite

Sushi Grand

Painted floor at Woods Restaurant

Duckpin bowling alley at Woods Restaurant

Class materials