2014-06-14 / News

Grand Hotel’s Colorful Design Thrills Guests Each Year

By Macaela Bennett


Every day, Grand Hotel guests enjoy afternoon tea in the colorful parlor looking out to the hotel’s famous porch. Every day, Grand Hotel guests enjoy afternoon tea in the colorful parlor looking out to the hotel’s famous porch. Seven light posts on Cadotte Avenue boulevard have long matched Grand Hotel’s white and green exterior, until two weeks ago, when they were repainted a dark crimson and black.

Grand Hotel makes no design change without the approval of Dorothy Draper & Company’s president and designer, Carleton Varney, and this was no exception.

The new colors, Mr. Varney said, tie in to Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor, which is visible at the top of the hill by its black and red awnings and red fence.

“Carleton said, ‘Stand on the porch and tell me what you think,’” Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz said of the color change.

“I like it,” Mr. Tagatz answered. “In every room, there’s always one piece of black for balance, and this continues that.”


Grand Hotel designer Carleton Varney had the light posts repainted to match the color scheme at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor. Grand Hotel designer Carleton Varney had the light posts repainted to match the color scheme at Sadie’s Ice Cream Parlor. Every spring before the hotel opens its doors to customers, Mr. Varney walks through and compiles a list of changes to improve the experience of Grand Hotel guests, said John Hulett, Grand Hotel senior vice president.

“I look at Grand Hotel as if it were a person,” Mr. Varney told the Town Crier, “a person who speaks to you with a certain eloquence, certain sparkle, certain laugher, certain smile, and sense of awareness. You can find that throughout the hotel and everywhere you go. It’s the kind of thing that embraces you.”

The Musser family, owners of the hotel, handed over the design reins to one of the nation’s oldest interior design firms in 1976.


Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz calls this pink-striped theater where conferences and conventions are held the “Oh wow” room, because that’s what everyone says when they enter it. Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz calls this pink-striped theater where conferences and conventions are held the “Oh wow” room, because that’s what everyone says when they enter it. “We were worn, we were dated, we needed some serious upgrades,” Mr. Tagatz said of that time. Visiting another hotel that had been decorated by Mr. Varney inspired the owners to call upon the Dorothy Draper firm for design assistance. The hotel was soon to host a large business conference and the Mussers asked Mr. Varney to embellish the hotel just enough to stay in business.

When Mr. Varney arrived at the hotel, according to Mr. Tagatz, he walked through the vibrantly colored gardens and then “walked into our beige hotel and said two things: ‘One, “If I do this, I want to do every inch of this hotel. I create a symphony with colors. I need a blank sheet of music, and every public space will be done by me.’ Two, ‘Every color in that garden is coming in this hotel.’”

Since then, Mr. Varney has put his touch on every inch of wall, carpet, ceiling, and furniture in Grand Hotel with its 264 wallpapers and brilliant colors, 14 of which are registered to the hotel. There are 386 rooms, and Mr. Varney has designed each one uniquely.

Mr. Varney uses bold colors, textures, and patterns, inspired by his company’s famous founder, Dorothy Draper.

“One of the things Mrs. Draper taught me was that when we did a job, she used to say, ‘Show me nothing that looks like gravy, because those colors are very muted and they’re not happy,’” Mr. Varney said. “Surround yourself and your environment with happy colors and it changes your life. I’ve lived with a lot of people who worked in beige rooms and it changes their entire personality.”

When Mr. Tagatz asked Mr. Varney what to tell people about Grand Hotel, Mr. Varney replied, “Tell them they’re at Grand Hotel and it’s their birthday. The hotel would like to give them a present, and you have two gifts, but they can only have one. One is in a brown wrapper with packing string and the other one is in pink and white striped paper with a red ribbon, and possibly some flowers. Which package do you think the guest is going to choose?” Mr. Varney asked rhetorically.

“When the Musser family calls me to decorate a room, I don’t decorate anything. I gift wrap what you sell. You sell memories, I gift wrap them. So all my walls and ceilings will be ribbons and bows.”

For a hotel where conferences and conventions comprise a majority of its business, Mr. Tagatz said it’s important that Grand Hotel stand out from other venues through distinctive elements like Mr. Varney’s design.

“We live in a cookie-cutter world,” Mr. Tagatz said. “Personally, I call it the United States of generica, where it’s one beige chain place after another across the country...The ‘Oh wow’ factor is what we’re shooting for here. Come to a fun place that’s bright and beautiful. Come make fun of our colors, we don’t care, because you’re going to remember it. If you go to five conventions, which one are you going to remember? You’re going to remember our theater, the big pink ballroom with the stripes, and that’s what it’s about.”

Guests at the recent Detroit Regional Chamber Policy Conference noted that these design elements are an important reason why so many enjoy attending the conference.

“Most conference locations are much more sterile and downtown somewhere,” said Jim Holcomb, Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce senior vice president.

“Yeah, where all the rooms look alike,” added Deborah Muchmore, vice president of Marketing Resource Group. “As an attendee of a conference at Grand Hotel, I know I’m going to spend several days at a place that’s very gracious and welcoming, and every room is appealing. Every hallway, every aspect of the hotel and its grounds make it a place that you want to be and explore and experience.”

In her work with attending and organizing business conferences, Mrs. Muchmore explained the venue chosen represents the tone of the conference and the reputation of the organization hosting it.

“The style of Grand Hotel lends itself so well to the kind of hospitality and environment that any company working there wants to extend to its guest. At this conference, Grand reflects not just Mackinac Island, but also, it reflects the Detroit Regional Chamber to everyone who’s participating and supporting it.”

With its excellent design and service combined, Mrs. Muchmore said, Grand Hotel is at the top of its game.

“There are many places in the country and around the world that do these things well and are very professional, and Grand Hotel competes with all of those. They have that particular style. I don’t know that I could describe it—it’s just a special one.”

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