The incomparable Carleton Varney infuses an oceanfront Maui estate with island whimsy.
Knoll 1966 outdoor furnishings sit on the lanai, which has a green-and-white-striped covering to complete the cabana feel.
“I always use the term of a decorator. That’s vintage,” declares Carleton Varney. “When [interior design] became a profession, they wanted to pedigree themselves and call themselves interior designers—makes them sound chicer. But it’s OK,” he goes on—his personality as bold as his pattern play peeking through. “I don’t care what they say. Some people call me an interior designer. Some people call me a decorator. Some people call me a lecturer. Some people call me an author.” Whatever the moniker, a definitive title comes to mind when considering Varney and his rich library of work: legendary.
A custom Murano chandelier hangs above the Pierre Cardin dining table.
I catch Varney at his home in Ireland. I’m expecting to interview the Dorothy Draper & Company president about the Maui renovation he completed earlier this year, but the reality of our conversation is all the better. We talk about sourcing antiques and masterplanning designs for past clients, including Laurance Rockefeller, Jimmy Carter and Joan Crawford—it’s enough to make any student of design swoon.
There are vintage Polynesian furnishings throughout the home.
He walks me through this recent remodel process and the burdens the pandemic imposed. “It was not easy to get things done on Maui,” he recounts of the experience. “But,” he says, undeterred, “we conquered.” I get an art history lesson on Hawai‘i creatives and a crash course on the socialite scene. But along the way, the—ahem—decorator dips in and out of his own swan song, recounting tales of designing the gargantuan Sheraton Waikiki to feel as warm and welcoming as a neighbor’s home; building the iconic, now-shuttered Kapalua Bay Hotel on Maui; mentoring his many acolytes at the Carleton Varney School of Arts & Design, insisting “I don’t hire anybody who cannot draw a fleur-de-lis”; and meeting Anne Morrow Lindbergh at her Maui ranch on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Gift From the Sea.“She influenced me tremendously about places and people,” he says. I’m enraptured.
The kitchen has a mirrored backsplash to reflect the ocean views from the living room.
And as our virtual tête-à-tête continues, what I begin to realize is that beyond his fascinating tales of interior, creative and hospitality greats, Varney is simply walking me through his design process. He takes me back—all the way back—to immerse me in this home’s story and, interestingly enough, it starts with Lindbergh’s classic book.
The primary bedroom has a lime zebra rug and upholstered headboard. The bed is covered in fabric depicting the Cymbidium orchid.
Set mere steps from the ocean, the home is trained on the sea, with the natural beauty of Lahaina its canvas. “It was so intriguing and so poignant,” Varney says of the tome. “I can see why people go to Hawai‘i to live from that point of view, and I think that’s why my clients like it. They like the serenity, and they love to watch the sea. That’s why the [windows and sliding glass doors] are all sea-facing. You look out at the whale dancing in the sea in the Pacific Ocean. It’s quite a miraculous thing.”
Inside, Varney describes the home as a Hawaiian garden. The furnishings are festooned with flora- and fauna-filled upholstery from Dorothy Draper & Company. The walls are trimmed with bamboo for a decidedly retro appeal. There’s a no-holds-barred approach to color. And Pegge Hopper originals hang in the primary bedroom, while vintage Hawai‘i travel posters that harken to former Governor George Ariyoshi’s time in office line the stairwell.
The living room walls are painted Raspberry Smoothie, a custom color created by Carleton Varney with Fine Paints of Europe. The chair fabric is Summer Fruits by Dorothy Draper & Company.
The decor speaks to a vintage paradise, with pieces including a custom pink-and-aqua Murano chandelier above the Pierre Cardin brass-and-chrome dining table, Knoll 1966 outdoor furniture makes a home on the lanai, Draper plaster palm lamps rest on bedroom side tables, antique photographs of Hawaiian royalty have artistic pride of place and a cheeky hula lamp sashays from a corner vignette. “I am not a minimalist in any sense of the word,” Varney says. “I’m a great believer in doing things that relate to the environment and… I’m a collector of memorabilia of sorts. … People feel when they’re in a place that we have done that they are really not in another location.” And true to his mission, this Maui home is transportive—from the serenity of the sea to the madcap colors of its midcentury decor.
Artwork throughout depicts Hawaiian royalty and vintage Hawai‘i travel posters.
The vintage lamp’s hula dancer can still sway.
Photography by: Joe D'Alessandro