Thomas Jefferson and Carleton Varney's Decorating Ideas

3 Pieces of Design Wisdom to Learn From Thomas Jefferson

Following the recent restoration of Thomas Jefferson's dining room at Monticello (it was repainted to its original zingy chrome yellow color), the Wall Street Journal sat down with Dorothy Draper protégé Carleton Varney, also the former White House design consultant under Carter, to discuss his thoughts on the room's many colorful and creative ideas. Whether or not you live in a historic Southern estate, there's plenty to learn from the stylish and practical president.


  1. Roll with it. Thomas Jefferson used one of the world's first tiered trolley tables, known as dumbwaiters, at Monticello. Storing drinks, dishes, serving plates, and dinner utensils, the tables were favored by the president because they limited the number of servants needed in the dining room, so his guests could enjoy more of the scenery, more privacy, and less obtrusive service. Few of us have dinner servants in our homes, but at least it keeps the host from having to run back and forth to the kitchen.
  2. Be optimistic. Jefferson's cutting-edge, sunny yellow walls bring a sense of cheerfulness to the space. When you're entertaining guests in your dining room, could you think of anything better than setting a positive, optimistic vibe?
  3. Adapt to change. Monticello was full of adaptable, multifunctional furniture. He favored drop-leaf tables which, as Varney says, "could be moved against the wall and used as consoles to keep the room open, or expanded and pushed together to accommodate many diners."

Head over to the Wall Street Journal to read more about Thomas Jefferson's design aesthetic.

Photo by Philip Beaurline, courtesy of Monticello/Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc.

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