June 29, 1998 12:00 PM

Designer Carleton Varney describing himself as a “color person” is like Bill Gates saying he’s financially “comfortable.” The man responsible for dressing some of the country’s toniest interiors—from the Breakers in Palm Beach to the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island (“They don’t put a matchbook in the place without me,” he boasts)—in his trademark shades of aquamarine, deep pinks and yummy yellows, he is now applying his bold-is-best-and-busy-is-better approach to a line of resortwear. Using prints that evoke the sky, flowers and plants of the tropics, plus stripes and geometric shapes—often all together—he says, “My designs are Herculean. There’s a swashbuckling look to my style.”

In other words, don’t look for beige in Varney’s palette—or minimalism in his designs. “I don’t do cereal-bowl resortwear or interiors,” he says. Nor does he shy away from scolding others who do. “You go through Calvin Klein or DKNY or to Banana Republic and that’s all you see: beige, khaki, brown, sand, okra,” he says. “There’s no sparkle.”

That quality has never eluded the 61-year-old designer. On May 14, the day before he unveiled his 109-piece collection at the Miami Beach Convention Center, he held court poolside at the Surf Club. Clad in a yellow, brown and green floral-print shirt from his collection, he waved, laughed and chatted with breezy bonhomie about the line (priced from $60 for a cotton golf shirt to $400 for a long taffeta skirt with a silk top). He was equally ebullient the next evening, when models paraded down the catwalk as a steel band played and applauding guests sipped piña coladas. Varney and Denice Summers, a friend and client from Palm Beach Gardens who is bankrolling the line (now available in boutiques at some of the resorts he has decorated), were thrilled with the reception. Varney, she says, chose colors “that make people happy, and when people go on vacation, they want to be happy.”

As for the designer himself, “I’m never happy unless I’m around water,” says Varney, who grew up in the seaside town of Nahant, Mass. The younger of two siblings (sister Vivian, 62, is an art history professor at Centralia College in Washington), Varney has homes in St. Croix and County Limerick, Ireland, and rents an apartment in Trump Tower in New York City. His parents (Carleton, a sporting goods store manager, and home-maker Julia, both deceased) filled their home with color, which delighted their son. “The living room carpeting was a very bright red and the upholstery on certain sofas was always a very dark green,” he recalls. “It was like a Christmas package.” A precocious child, Varney painted and watched ’50s musicals. “It was like being transported into a fantasy world,” he says, “and that’s what I create, fantasies.”

A 1958 graduate of Oberlin College, where he majored in Spanish and art history, Varney got a master’s in education from New York University in 1960, then taught for two years at private schools until he was hired by the Dorothy Draper interior design firm. His qualifications: “They wanted someone intelligent, with a background in art history.”

Varney became president of the company in 1968, the same year he married Suzanne, whom he had met years earlier while working at a New Hampshire resort. Divorced in 1997, they have three sons, Nicholas, 26, a Manhattan jewelry designer, Seamus, 24, who has Down syndrome and lives on a family farm in Upstate New York, and Sebastian, 22, who graduated in May from Florida’s Rollins College. Varney, who visits Seamus often, can’t talk about his son without losing composure. But, Nicholas says, theirs was a happy home, “like theater.” He adds, “I remember Jimmy Carter coming over to the apartment for dinner, and Andy Warhol was our neighbor.” In addition to the Carters (Varney helped decorate the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta), his clients have included Pat Robertson, Joan Crawford and Joe Namath. Says Marilyn Quayle, for whom Varney redid the vice presidential mansion: “His ability to make a room both elegant and inviting is his hallmark.”

Varney’s clothes, he predicts, will be standouts. But he can’t promise that an identical pattern won’t turn up on someone—or something—else at one of the resorts he has decorated. “It’s like somebody wearing the same dress,” he says. “Only in this case, you have to worry that you might see it on a window.”

Christina Cheakalos

Fannie Weinstein in Miami Beach

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