Would you like a Starburst?” jewelry designer Nicholas Varney asks by way of introduction. He pops one in his mouth, tosses a handful to a visitor and proceeds to delve into the pros and cons of various gummi-bear brands. It’s a peculiar start to an interview. Given Varney’s design forte in extravagantly pricey baubles, one expects perhaps a tonier amuse-bouche than candy fruit chews.
But Varney, one soon finds out, is all about this banal-fancy contrast. He’s a former college baseball player–turned–jeweler, one who has resided in Manhattan’s Trump Tower but now wants to live in a barn (and is, in fact, building himself one in Pine Plains, New York). Then there’s the almost too-perfect point-counterpoint between him and his father. “I’m an introvert; he’s an extrovert,” says the son, 37. “He’s a bigger-than-life guy. His persona and bravado force you at a young age to find yourself.”
But then, Dad is the splashy Carleton Varney, owner and president of Dorothy Draper & Company, the interior design firm founded by the most über theatrical decorating doyenne of them all. In early October father and son will get their joint moment in the spotlight with a bash at Bergdorf Goodman celebrating Nicholas’s latest collection and Carleton’s new book, Houses in My Heart: Carleton Varney, an International Decorator’s Colorful Journey.
Appropriately, this chat is taking place in the elder Varney’s midtown office—its walls covered in a busy French toile, its window shades the color of a summery mint julep. Quirky knickknacks—bronze horse heads, a pair of sequined baby shoes—are everywhere, coexisting with chintzy floral rugs, plaid carpeting and a garden hose that snakes through the room and out onto the balcony. In the middle of it all sits the younger Varney, looking like a fish out of water. It’s just that he’s so low-key, and the surrounding flash factor ranks high.
But the conversation soon reveals the father’s influence on the son’s work. Like Carleton (and Draper), Nicholas has a serious thing for bold color and dramatic proportions. “I was never a minimal guy. Lobbies of fabulous hotels were normal to me,” says Nicholas, who is now based in Palm Beach. (Carleton decorated such showy spaces as the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia and the Waldorf Towers in New York.) “I’m a more-is-more guy. I didn’t know any better. A lamp should be half the size of the room, or a sconce, enormous.” Still, the talk never skews too sentimental. And while his brother Sebastian now heads the fabric house Carleton V., Nicholas has pretty much steered clear of all things decor-related. “That wasn’t my domain,” he says matter-of-factly.