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Decorating Is Fun!

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Dorothy Draper’s protégé, Carleton Varney, shares his insights on interior designDecember will see a flood of interior designers, authors and style arbiters arrive in the city. Some are drawn by the first Winter Art & Antiques Show, to be held December 3–5 at the Old U.S. Mint, which will benefit the Louisiana State Museum. Others will be reading from and signing books they have authored.

New York’s Alexa Hampton, the daughter of the late Mark Hampton, arrives with The Language of Interior Design in tow; Thomas Jayne, a New Yorker so smitten with New Orleans that he keeps a home here, brings us The Finest Rooms in America; and Debra Shriver, who lives in an über-glam Rockefeller building in the heart of Manhattan and works in Hearst’s famed Art Deco building, has penned Stealing Magnolia, an homage to New Orleans. Each is a study in taste, flair and in many ways restraint.

Carleton Varney, the featured speaker at Longue Vue House and Gardens’ 2010 Essence of Style Design Symposium, arrived in November to talk about his work and show photos of rooms created by his mentor, the late Ms. Dorothy Draper. His work is, if anything, a study in a lack of restraint.

“She was of the age of glamour with a capital G,” said Varney, of the woman who designed the interiors for the Greenbrier Hotel in Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; New York City’s now-shuttered hot spot El Morocco; as well as the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel and Hampshire House. Varney, now president of Dorothy Draper & Co., is less over the top. His work evolves with the times, and he is meticulous and thorough, down to the flowers he puts in his clients’ rooms.

“There isn’t that sort of Old Hollywood glamour anymore. I find that there are more personal touches in people’s homes—art, mementos and, very often, pieces of furniture that are very personal and of great sentiment. So as a designer, I spend a good deal of time talking with a client before we begin a project,’’ continued Varney, explaining how he works and how it can work for all of us. “I always ask people to describe, down to the smallest detail, the first room they really remember.”

That may seem strange to most of us, but Varney believes that room has a huge impact and is something you carry with you throughout life. He asks one to draw a picture if possible and describe the color/colors; sources of light; smell (ocean air, roses, pine trees); furnishings (chairs, sofas, carpets, books, candlesticks, anything distinctive); the mood of the room. “You will grow in age, taste and a certain style will evolve, but that room has made an important imprint.” With so many sources of inspiration these days—magazines, blogs, TV shows—it’s easy to get confused. When one finds herself in a decorating conundrum, it’s good to stop, close the eyes and try to go back to that room. Remembering will tell you something or lead you someplace, and to Varney that place is important.

“If you have that picture clear in your mind, you will find a color, texture, fabric, appointment that will give you great comfort and put you at ease with your present-day environment. If the room was a certain shade of pink then incorporate it in the room—drapes, walls, ceiling, even something a simple as accent pillows for a sofa.

“For some, there is a sense of place that moves with them no matter where they live. People from Boston, San Francisco and New Orleans love old chintz, slightly worn velvets, things that take on a patina of being passed from generation to generation. In New York, there is an old-school, Upper East Side look and a hard-edge, mid-century-modern-meets-Soho approach to Deco. I suspect even in the sleekest, minimalist spaces there is something—the light, view, desk accessory—that displays the hallmark of that first-remembered room.”

One wonders if Varney has advice to share for those of us who don’t have the budget of his famed-client list (Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, etc.). Indeed, he does. Besides the many books he has authored on the subject of decor and his former boss, who was one of the first women in design to understand “branding” across a number of products, much of what he says is quite simple:

1)     Live as beautifully as you can. Do not save the “good crystal and china” for an occasion. A beautiful table will make a simple meal an occasion.

2)     Buy the best you can afford. There is so much disposable furniture out there today. But a very well-made sofa, a pillow of beautiful silk or cut velvet, the perfect crisp slipcovers for summer will serve you well for a long time.

3)     Flowers and flowering plants are one of life’s great pleasures. Buy them for yourself and for others. If you are lucky enough to have a garden, grow them.

4)     Don’t be afraid of bold colors. I love to paint small rooms intense colors like deep raisin, black or navy. Add sparkling things like lights, mirrors, crystal or books, big suede chairs, and you have a very stylish cocoon.

5)     Please look at the ceilings of your bedrooms. I think of the bedroom as an office, study, living room with a bed in it! We spend so much time in our beds, when we look up we should see something beautiful or soothing. I love that so many Southerners paint the ceilings of rooms blue!

The holidays are the perfect time to give Varney’s ideas a “flight test.” Set a beautiful table; splurge on fine bed linens; try on a style you’ve been curious about (who says one can’t have Art Deco ornaments or cozy country cottage baskets filled with pine cones); or, like Lady Gaga, get a little creative with the season’s trimmings.