WRITER | SARAH SPOHN
A visit to Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel has become an iconic summertime tradition for generations of families since its opening in 1887. The Grand Hotel proclaims itself the world’s largest summer hotel and has an equally long and impressive history of iconic interior and exterior design. While the property is easily identifiable by its long front porch, the design elements behind it are neither ordinary nor easily duplicated.
Carleton Varney, president of Dorothy Draper & Co., has been the mastermind behind the hotel’s designs since 1976. Varney first ventured to the Island after the hotel owner called Dorothy Draper & Co. to speak with Mrs. Draper – only to discover that she had passed away. Varney likened the Grand Hotel to a walk through a garden. For the past four decades, he has infused the hotel with rich velvets, dainty floral wall coverings, and one-of-a-kind antiques sprinkled throughout the massive property. Varney has also applied his designer’s touch to everything from employee uniforms to menu designs.
Just as the Mackinaw Bridge connects Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas, Varney’s designs give a nod to the hotel’s Victorian-era past while pairing elegant tradition with a bright, fresh, patterned present.
This decades-spanning relationship between Varney and the Grand Hotel is documented in Varney’s latest book, Rooms to Remember. The stories behind 43 unique rooms and suites come to life on the book’s pages.
Grand Hotel president Dan Musser considers Varney family after 40-plus years working together on designs for the summer hotspot. A sense of familiarity and fun is present whenever Varney steps foot on the plush hotel carpet – which he also designed.
“Varney brings a cheerfulness into the hotel – not that it was lacking!” Musser said, “He brings a cheerfulness, lightheartedness, and a bit of whimsy. We’re not a big old cement-and-marble city hotel; we’re a wood-frame, summer place.”
Varney, revered as one of the country’s most well-known designers, is recognized for his use of vibrant colors, floral patterns, and mixed textures. He spoke about his inspiration behind the 397 rooms and suites he’s worked on over 42 years. “I wanted it to be open and garden-like,” Varney said. “I wanted it to feel like a storied cottage on the island, with different antiques and treasures mixed in. I brought all of those wonderful flowers that are all over the island inside, throughout the hotel.”
Michigan felt like home to Varney, a Massachusetts native who grew up working at The Rockledge, a summer hotel overlooking Boston harbor. “The feeling of being surrounded by the glistening water and set in a slower pace on Mackinac reminds me of my childhood,” the 82-year-old said.
Though it felt like home, Varney is quick to reference the uniqueness of the Grand Hotel, specifically in its location. “The Grand Hotel, in particular, is so unique because of the situation it is in geographically. Perched atop a hill overlooking the Straits of Mackinac on a fantasy island. Traveling by boat, and then horse-drawn carriage, to the magnificent Queen of the Great Lakes – there’s nothing quite like it.”
It’s those colorful straits that Musser says Varney seemingly modeled the hotel’s fresh aesthetics after – whether it be the Lady Bird Johnson suite, the 1,000-seat formal dining room, or the world’s longest porch with its iconic yellow and white-striped awnings.
“The colors draw the beautiful blue from the straits of Mackinac into the hotel,” Musser said. “They are bright colors – they’re summer colors that maybe you wouldn’t want to live with every day. But I think for a summer vacation, they’re entirely appropriate, and uplifting for a vacation here on Mackinac Island.”
Despite having designed hundreds of rooms all over the country for other historic hotels, celebrities, and presidents, Varney has not felt the burnout or gotten stuck in a style rut. “I am always inspired by color and am excited to show people how to use it in many different ways,” he said. “I do find that while my style is always evolving, I stick true to my design DNA.”
Each year, Varney revisits the space, with recommendations for redesigns and ways to revamp areas. He spoke about his enduring relationship with the Michigan property. “Grand Hotel and Mackinac Island are so special to me, and I truly recommend that everyone should experience it because it is so inspirational,” he said. “The fudge is not bad, either!”