Richard Keith Langham Honors Carleton Varney’s Colorful Legacy


minty green and ocean blue room with palm tree motif mural

In a Palm Beach villa designed by Carleton Varney, a bright rug mimics the waves of the ocean, while the painted mural includes one of the decorator’s favorite motifs: palm trees. (PHOTO BY KIM SARGENT, COURTESY OF DOROTHY DRAPER & CO. INC)

Design veteran Richard Keith Langham examines the late Carleton Varley’s design ethos and majestic use of saturated hues and vivid patterns.

Carleton Varney was a real magician when it came to color; he understood its intensity and lasting power. Whether we want to admit it or not, pattern and color are stimulating. Carleton knew that. It’s what spoke to him, and—through the rooms he created—it’s what is still speaking to us today, in everything from his residential projects to resorts like The Greenbrier and The Colony Palm Beach.

The Greenbrier has such a majestic scale; Carleton really respected the bones of the resort. At the same time, he made it feel intimate through his use of saturated hues and vivid patterns. He once said that he hoped people would someday want hotels to be more than just lodging, that staying at one should be an event.

I think he would be happy to see the direction in which design is moving. There’s a resurgence of traditional motifs, fanciful prints and bold colors. You can even trace his influence to some of the newer talent today. They’re taking risks and stepping out with a little more flamboyance, which takes great confidence and panache, all qualities which Carleton had in spades. For someone like me who’s been in the business for 40 years, witnessing that continuum in design is wonderful. It’s exciting for our whole industry. There’s exuberance and good energy that you can trace back to designers like Carleton. He would have been thrilled knowing he laid the groundwork for that.

Not only was Carleton a man of style, but he was also known for his graciousness. It was that charisma that added to his ability to enliven rooms with such personality. He once said, ‘There’s so much ugliness in the world. If I can inspire people to look at their environment and help them to make it prettier, then I have succeeded.’ I love that sentiment.

— As told to Michelle Brunner 


This story is part of a three-part feature that taps design and architecture luminaries to honor the legacy of boundary-breaking icons recently lost. Check in as :