Remembering Mr. Color

FLOWER editor-in-chief, Margot Shaw reflects on Carleton Varney, aka "Mr. Color"
interior designer Carleton Varney
Photo by Michele Arnaud from the book, Decorating in the Grand Manor: A Design Memoir by Carleton Varney (Shannongrove Press)

It’s been a year and small change since my friend, Carleton Varney left this earth.

We met just as I was starting up a magazine, FLOWER. Someone wonderful whose identity is still unknown to me had sent Carleton a copy of our inaugural issue, he read it, loved it, and sent me the most kind and encouraging letter ever. I picked up the phone, called and reached him right away, thanked him, and promptly asked if he might consider penning a piece on his mentor, Dorothy Draper and her use of flowers in design.

His response, in his Lynn, Massachusetts accent was immediate and breezy, “I don’t know why not!” The next morning, thanks to the magic of publishing in the digital age, I had a perfect 500 word 4 image story in my inbox. I didn’t change a thing. Thus began my relationship with Carleton, known in the industry as Mr. Color due to his exuberant and extravagant use and love of color in his work and life. He gave subscriptions of FLOWER to friends and clients (who also were, of course, friends,) recommended me as a speaker at antique shows and garden club luncheons, connected me with promising advertising prospects, and kept us on his radar whenever he was involved with or got wind of anything that might prove FLOWER-apt.

From throwing a smashing dinner party for me in London on the occasion of my maiden visit to the Chelsea Flower Show, to just picking up the phone for a brief chat, he seemed to always consider me and my world. Of course, I know he had legions of friends and fans. But, aside from decorating fearlessly and colorfully, he had the rare gift of making one feel that they were the most special and important person of his acquaintance.

One of my favorite opportunities regarding Carleton and FLOWER was being able to assign a lengthy feature on him to my dear cousin and Forbes staff writer, Monte Burke. A most adept writer, primarily in the area of sports, like any good writer, he could capture the essence no matter the subject. He had never met Carleton and was not necessarily a devoté of decorating. However, after spending an afternoon with him, Monte called gushing and grateful for the assignment. I felt that in some small way, I had broadened my cousin’s canon and he produced an exquisite profile of Mr. Color.

Pink and white dining room in Mackinac Island, Michigan, designed by Carleton Varney.
Pink and white dining room designed by Carleton Varney for a Mackinac Island, Michigan home. Photo by Michel Arnaud

And speaking of color, it occurs to me that Carleton would be tickled pink at this moment in our culture, when Barbie is on the big screen, the lips, and minds of women of all ages all over America—with the color pink that those of us of a certain vintage associate with Barbie’s Dream House, Corvette, pony-tail bow, and plastic high heels popping up in store windows, tablescapes, and fashion magazines.

Though known for his omnipresent red socks, I can’t help thinking that he might make an exception these days and don a pair of pink ones in celebration of another American icon. Both were about living a life of bold choices, full of possibility, and of course, color.