October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

Joan Crawford called him “Carleton Dearest” and ordered stall showers, yellow furniture and lots of plastic plants. With Ethel Merman, who refers to his bills as “my national debt,” he once did reds, whites and blues. Martha Mitchell told him the whole world should be pink. And for Rosalynn Carter, he tried to make the White House reflect the then First Lady’s “unsophisticated Southern charm.” With that kind of democratic client roster, Carleton Varney is arguably the country’s most in-demand middlebrow decorator. He is certainly one of the best-known. Varney’s column, Your Family Decorator, pops up in some 40 newspapers from the Buffalo Evening News to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and this month his syndicated cable TV show debuts on up to 122 stations nationwide. His national company employs 35 people in a dozen cities, and his 10th book, full of tips on how to fancy up a country place and appropriately titled Down Home, is a Literary Guild alternate selection for February. Varney’s gross this year: nearly $6 million. “The only account I don’t have that I really want is Southfork,” he cracks. “But I’m not sure even J.R. Ewing could handle my bills.”

Those charges vary, depending on the job, from $110 to $250 an hour, and an entire redo with furnishings for a two-bedroom apartment can typically set a client back some $150,000. Varney recalls the time Crawford phoned, sobbing, to tell him she was broke and couldn’t pay him on time. She did pay eventually, and over their 12-year friendship Varney did two of her three New York apartments. He remembers Crawford as “obsessively tidy. Everywhere I looked the furniture was covered in clear plastic. There were more objects wrapped in plastic in Joan’s apartment than in an A&P meat counter.”

Aside from Varney’s celebrity lineup, he has also designed the interiors for such hotels as West Virginia’s Greenbrier, the Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island and Hawaii’s Sheraton-Waikiki. Varney’s hotel trade grew out of his early collaboration with decorating grande dame Dorothy Draper, who “draperized” hotels all over America for 30 years.

Born 44 years ago in the Massachusetts town of Nahant, Varney loved to paint and draw as a child. But he was also fascinated with languages; in 1958 he graduated from Ohio’s Oberlin College with a degree in Spanish and went on to earn a master’s in education from New York University. After a short stint teaching grade school French and Spanish, Varney went to work for Draper in 1960 at $163 a week as a “boy Friday.” Four years later an inheritance helped him buy controlling stock in the firm. By the time he was 30, Varney was president. His company is still called Dorothy Draper & Co., Inc. (During what Varney calls “an unhappy but not bitter time,” Draper started a competing firm, Dorothy Draper Enterprises, that folded with her death in 1969.)

Varney’s homey style, like his mentor’s, is distinguished by great splashes of color and floral prints. He bemoans what he calls “vanilla decorating,” and shuns beiges, grays and soft browns in favor of sky blue, bright yellow and pumpkin. “I use 50 different prints in the same room,” he says, “and I can make it work. I build it up like a flower garden.”

Varney has also built up a line of “Carleton V” fabrics, wallpaper and furniture that is marketed in stores across the country under the supervision of his wife, Suzanne, 39. The Varneys share a comfortable, but understated, eight-room Manhattan apartment with sons Nicholas, 10, and Sebastian, 5. Another son, 7-year-old Shamus, has Down’s syndrome and lives in a special community residence upstate. The clan’s current domestic chore is renovating their farmhouse 75 miles north of Manhattan.

Known for a time as a Democrats’ decorator, he did the Carter White House and recently finished redecorating Walter Mondale’s Washington home. Nonetheless, Varney also spruced up the New Jersey country club co-owned by Republican Labor Secretary Ray Donovan in time for a lavish Reagan fund raiser in 1979. Two projects in the works: redoing Laurance Rockefeller’s posh Caneel Bay Plantation and Little Dix Bay resorts in the Virgin Islands. “I’ve made up more rules to tell people about how to decorate, but I break every one,” Varney admits. His own favorite color? “Emerald green,” he grins. “It’s the color of money.”

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