Last summer, John and I visited Mackinac Island, Michigan’s fabled Grand Hotel. We lapped up the classic American design and Carleton Varney’s bold punches of prints and patterns. Join us for a weekend away…
I first met Dorothy Draper & Company President and Owner Carleton Varney twenty years ago when I was editing a glossy magazine in Palm Beach. Carleton had just launched a line of wonderfully vibrant resort wear, and I produced a fashion story around his shift dresses that was part Faye Dunaway in “Bonnie and Clyde” meets Cardi B-styled sass. Read: Cash and gumball-sized bling spilling from quilted bags and sky-high Prada Day-Glo heels.
Carleton commented, “I don’t think Palm Beach ever saw the like.”
Regardless, the design legend and I remained friendly over the subsequent years, and Carleton got to know John when he entered the picture.
Recently, John and I penned a design book, “Prints Charming: Create Absolutely Beautiful Interiors with Prints & Patterns,” and Carleton graciously agreed to write the introduction. John and I spent a wonderful afternoon in Dorothy Draper & Company’s Midtown Manhattan offices listening to Carleton’s incredible anecdotes and needlepoint-worthy quotes.
Last summer, when we heard that Carleton would be hosting the 5th annual Dorothy Draper School of Decorating weekend at the fabled Varney-designed Grand Hotel on Michigan’s atmospheric Mackinac Island, John and I jumped at the opportunity. Besides, Carleton would be celebrating the release of his latest book (his 36th!), the stunning “Rooms to Remember: A Designer’s Tour of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel,” so we knew there would be plenty of visual fireworks. I had been to the hotel years before when my parents thought, incorrectly, that I would become a piano prodigy at Michigan’s venerable Interlochen Arts Camp. John had never visited The Grand, but he, like I, is smitten with Varney’s masterstrokes at The Greenbrier, not far from our home in High Point, North Carolina.
We signed up and set off for the planes, rental cars, and such that would carry us to the car-free island that straddles Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
“Great Lakes Riviera, here we come!” we yelled to the cows and pine trees as we zipped along the highway north, north, north from buzzy, super-cool Detroit in our Avis rental car like Thelma and Louise minus the cliff but in batik pants and velvet slippers.
A quick ferry ride across the straits led to a horse-drawn carriage that efficiently transported us to the eye-popping Grand Hotel with its triple-height sprawling porch, the world’s longest. It was early June, and the fragrance of the ubiquitous white, lavender, and purple lilacs perfumed the air.
Step inside the 397-room hotel, and enter the fabulous, high-octane world of Carleton Varney where prints and patterns rule the roost. It is pure heaven and utterly unique. Floral carpets vye for attention with scenic wallpapers, geranium-hued velvets, fretwork, Joan Crawford’s black-lacquered side tables, and gilt plaster swags. And that’s just the lobby. Our room—a floral fantasia—boasted two balconies with postcard-perfect vistas onto the Straits of Mackinac, exuberant gardens, and the serpentine Esther Williams swimming pool.
The Dorothy Draper School of Decorating kicked off with a festive Friday-night cocktail party upon the porch hosted by Carleton and the team from Dorothy Draper in New York. Gentlemen wear coat and ties in the hotel after 6:30pm, and the women broke out floral dresses as they sipped champagne and mixed and mingled with the 30-odd participants attending the day-long class that would begin the next morning at 10am. From there it was on to dinner in the massive but beautifully organized Main Dining Room where we supped upon roast duck beside blowsy marigold-printed lambrequins (Google it, it’s decorator speak) on zippy cabana-striped chairs.
Saturday morning, John and I entered the classroom where a natty, white linen-clad Carleton sat up front besides a pitcher overflowing with fresh flowers with an image of a lilac-themed suite at the hotel from his new book projected onto the screen behind him.
Commented John, “If only all classrooms featured umbrella chandeliers dripping with Chinese bells, black floral-print chintz curtains, and azalea-hued walls. Sigh.”
Carleton kicked off the morning session with anecdotes and lessons from his sixty years at Dorothy Draper.
There’s talk of Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, and Margaret Thatcher.
And heaps of quotables.
“Umbrella stands are very important.”
“I dream in rooms.”
“Show me nothing that looks like gravy.”
Carleton challenges the students to embrace color. To write an essay about the first room they remember. How did it smell? Who was in the room? What was the color of the room?
Joan Crawford gets a star turn as Carleton discusses his long-running personal and professional relationship with the screen siren.
There are some zingers in the mix, naturally.
Speaking of Miss Crawford’s penchant for plastic slipcovers, Carleton deadpans, “Joan had more plastic in her home than the meat department at the A&P.”
We discuss formulaic hotels and how glamour has largely become a thing of the past.
Marlon Brando is mentioned as is the Aga Khan, Tony Curtis, and Princess Margaret, and we watch a wonderful clip of Edward R. Murrow, cigarette in hand, interviewing Dorothy Draper at her apartment in New York’s Carlyle Hotel.
We see residential projects that the Draper firm has designed and get a first-ever tour of Carleton’s manor-house escape in County Limerick, Ireland.
Carleton’s effervescent associate Rudy Saunders takes to the stage and talks about the Dorothy Draper mandate to “fight the will to be dreary,” and Draper’s engaging Draper Director of Design Brinsley Matthews walks us through the path of finding inspiration.
We break for lunch and, after lobster rolls and white wine, return to hear Dorothy Draper associate and professor Joellen Kerr guide us through “Grand: 101,” a lesson plan that covers the art of seeing, creativity, risk taking, and other tenets of the Dorothy Draper brand.
Carleton concludes the two-hour session with a spirited Q&A from the audience and awards each of us a diploma.
And with that it’s time for the wrap-up cocktail reception on the hotel’s porch and a book signing. Attendees swan about in florals, peacock hues, and seersucker.
Holding court, Carleton approves.
Rooms to Remember
Carleton’s Varney’s 36th book, “Rooms to Remember: A Designer’s Tour of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel,” celebrates the designer’s 40-year love affair with the iconic summer hotel. Profiling the Grand’s 43 unique “named” rooms and suites, the coffee table book offers heaps of color and pattern-upon-pattern play that will whisk you to a world where the imagination runs wild. Find Biedemeier furniture mixing with Victorian, Art Deco cohabiting comfortably with Mid-Century Modern, and Chinoiserie cozying up to English pine. With a heaping side of chintz! “Rooms to Remember” is a must read for the design and travel aficionado.