Auction 'finds' fill rural retreat

Carleton Varney, a designer and decorator, has brought the "country" look to his 1795 farmhouse in Dutchess County, in the Hudson River Valley of New York State.

It is there that he and his wife, Suzanne, and their three sons retreat on weekends and vacations. And it is in that rural setting, surrounded by 200 acres, that he is constantly refining his version of the country furnishing style -- and where his wife claims he is always out "decorating the land," as well.

It is true, he admits, that he indulges in planned planting, putting his hollyhocks and zinnias and marigolds, his cornfields and bean and tomato patches , where they will look their best, whether viewed from inside or outside the house. "I like doing something to the land and working it and being part of it, " he says. "It is restful contrast to my busy city life."

Mr. Varney is president of Dorothy Draper & Co. in New York and has been responsible for the decoration of such landmarks as the Greenbier Hotel in West Virginia, Dromoland Castle in Ireland, and numerous Sheraton hotels. He has decorated small apartments and grand houses, and designed furniture, fabrics, and wallpapers. His 12th book on interior decorating, "There Is No Place Like Home," will be published this fall. He is also table-decorating and party consultant to Rosalynn Carter when she entertains in the White House.

But he has never lost sight of those who have modest incomes, which is probably why some folks refer to him as the "Billy Graham of the decorating world." He preaches that people can do a lot for themselves and that they can improve their taste and develop their imagination.

As for the country look in decorating, he says that it is very big right now, but that it has always been big, from the very beginnings of the nation. That is because it is warm, and natural, and mellow, and pretty. And because it includes natural materials like stone, stucco, brick, and wood beams, as well as barn siding, plank floors, calico and patchwork, and hooked, braided, or rag rugs.

For the Varneys, their informal country mood is in sharp contrast to the far more restrained feeling of their nine-room city apartment, which is kept uncluttered and easy to maintain. "At Hillandale, our farm home, we let our pack-rat and collecting inclinations show," Mr. Varney says. "We do all out entertaining there, serving buffet usually, but seating people at a gateleg country oak table surrounded by high-backed chairs."

Every wall in the house is painted a warm soft canyon tone called Navajo clay. Wood floors are covered with natural sisal squares. All sofas and chairs are slipcovered, for practicality, in cotton prints and coordinated plains designed by Suzanne Varney. An old wooden hayfork hangs as sculpture on one wall and primitive paintings on another. Folk craft includes an old wooden horse and a wooden swan. And the only truly modern piece of furniture in the place is a steel and glass coffee table in the living room, which is a concession to easy cleaning.

The Varneys have been restoring their old house for the entire nine years they have lived in it. They says that it is quite impossible to do a restoration quickly and that they have tackled the job in the only sensible manner. They do it piece by piece and little by little.

They have been changing the windows, for instance, for seven years, looking all the while for just the right old shutters. They stay on the lookout for old hinges, cabinets with glass doors, and old crockery that they can make into lamps. Explains Mr. Varney, "Restoration of an old country house is the art of looking constantly for a lot of crazy things and then slowly finding uses for the reservoir of old crazy things you buy and stash away until the day you need them."

The Varneys do the auction circuit in their part of the world, including summer sales in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. They are constantly looking for better examples of good country antiques, so they can keep upgrading their collection as well as their investment. Buying American country antiques is a better investment today than buying stocks and bonds, according to this designer, so he is determined to keep purchasing, even though top quality is getting harder and harder to find.

Because their farm is near the site of an old Indian settlement, the Varney country look also includes handsome Indian baskets, clay artifacts, and a frame collection of Indian spearheads.

On their hunting forays to auctions and antique shops, the family also watches for slightly damaged patchwork quilts and torn and faded Oriental rugs to cut up into covers for toss or floor pillows. And Mr. Varney considers an old church pew or an old wrought- iron park bench as real "finds."

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