Ridiculously OTT, awful, awe-inspiring, colourful, crazy, tacky, chic, trendsetting, beautiful, unique and grand. All of these words are frequently used to describe Carlton Varney’s interior decoration at The Grand Hotel in Michigan. (And often said by the same person and perhaps in the same sentence)
When you approach Mackinac Island where the Grand Hotel is located, the dominant exterior of the hotel almost looks as if some one accidentally built the Whitehouse in the wrong spot and quickly received a telegram from the President that read, “Er, where the hell is my house? I’m in Washington D.C douche lords. Wrong State.
300 years later, one Carlton Varney interior redesign and a vibrant 50’s atmosphere later, you have a world-renowned hotel staffed almost exclusively by Jamaicans, that’s accessed by horse-drawn carriages and serviced by ferries staffed with guys who look like they belong on Glee. It sounds like The Mad Hatter meets Gone With The Wind meets Bob Marley, doesn’t it?
While Varney is known for his opulent use of colour and rejection of drab surroundings, he has carved a vital niche with the flamboyant use of vibrant colours, bold contrasts and use of florals. After touring the hotel for the first time on my lunch break, I returned to work only to serve a beverage to Carlton Varney himself. Slightly surreal. I wasn’t able to question him, I had a young american guy at the bar who felt compelled to fill me in on his very active sex life, ex girlfriend, ex-wife and current custody battle, his inability to maintain a girlfriend and a multitude of stories about his newly acquired yacht (a floating red light district apparently). I needed four shots of Whiskey and a Prozac to get through the rest of the night, by that time Varney had left and I had started hallucinating.
Walking around the Grand Hotel you are immersed in a blur of vibrant colour. Some rooms are literally breathtaking. Others look like Kermit the Frog’s crime scene after he was brutally murdered and his remains used as paint, others looked like nautical themed high-class red light districts. Some just stood out for their elegant simplicity but each room had visual reminders of Varney’s unmistakable personal design philosophies and style.
While working in the hotel, I often overheard the younger generation refer to the hotel as “so tacky but fun!” (said the 16-year-old in a last season polyester, highly flammable prom dress while flicking on a lighter) while the older generations marvelled at the beauty and ‘other worldliness’ of the interior decoration. They were breathless, and not because of impending cardiac arrests. Carlton had stolen their aging and critical hearts. The middle generation, neither old nor young, stood looking perplexed. Was it tres chic or tacky? The overwhelming majority marvelled at the décor and design, the use of contrast and colours which is lacking in most suburbs and even hotels now across the country. Everything is the same whether you are in LA or New Orleans. The ones who turned up their noses were middle-aged women from the South. Looking at a chandelier in the Cupola Bar, which is by all means flamboyant, a Texan turned to me behind the bar and said, “Oh Gaawwd, no honey! That doesn’t happen in Texas. Not my style. You’d be executed in Texas havin’ something like this in your house!” I don’t know if I was confused about her outfit, the chandelier or the fact she said Texan and style in the same sentence but something threw me off. Maybe it was the association between a chandlier and an execution. I made a mental note not to act flamboyant in Texas.
The one thing I love about Varney has forever remained the same. His work evokes a passionate response from almost everyone (except Generation X who can’t seem to decide wtf is going on, in the hotel or out of it) His style is original and instantly identifiable and as a designer, it is a true testament to his design philosophy and awe-inspiring style.
What do you think? Tres chic or tackier than a Souvenir shop in NYC?