Father’s Day memories of Dad

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, June 13, 2019

My father, interior decorator Merle J. Harbeck, sensitized me to the wonders of colour, design and texture in fabrics, Niagara Falls, and the stars farthest out.
Photography by Warren Harbeck

So many of our readers have asked me: Warren, where did you get your infectious sensitivity to design, colour and texture? Well, I guess I do have deep feelings about patterns and hues of beauty. But in thinking how to reply, it struck me that this is exactly what I should write about for my Father’s Day column. My Dad!

Dad – Merle J. Harbeck (1898–1984) – was an interior decorator in Buffalo, NY, where I lived most of my youth. The World War I veteran specialized in upholstery, draperies, cornices, bedspreads, and the harmony among them. He even had me help out at his shop during my junior-high days.

And how did I help out? Nothing terribly creative, I can assure you, but necessary nevertheless. I was his tack-puller. That is, when a chair or chesterfield was in the shop for reupholstering, it fell to me to remove the old fabric and padding so Dad could do his creative magic. And yup, that involved my using a clawed tack remover, one tack at a time. Not especially inspiring, to say the least.

But what was inspiring was my exposure to Dad’s dreams for what a piece of furniture could look like when it donned its new garb of the right fabrics from his wide selection. The orientation of a fabric design on a piece of furniture was critical for achieving the desired look. And the colours and textures? Yes, but wouldn’t new drapes go perfectly with this, too? And his oohing and aahing clients couldn’t agree more!

Dad’s mentoring me in such aesthetics was not limited to his trade, however. There were those hot, humid summer evenings when he would treat my Mom and me to a visit to Niagara Falls, less than an hour’s drive north along the Niagara River.

Yup, you bet there were design, colour and texture there, too.

We’d usually approach the falls from the American side, parking on Goat Island. There we’d walk along the intricate textures of the rapids as the now-divided river approached the brink of the American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls on the one side, and the Horseshoe Falls on the other, from there to roar on in mist-ifying wonder in its oceanward journey.

And ah, after dark? I’ll never forget those coloured lights with which Canada kissed the Falls and magically transformed their cascading white water into the colours of all my favourite soft drinks: cherry, orange, lemon, lime and grape. Then, as we’d head back to the car, the treed surroundings came alive with darting, blinking fireflies to show us the way.

Such breathtaking sights were only a preamble, however, to the mindboggling experiences Dad introduced me to at Buffalo’s planetarium, a pleasant walk together along an elm-lined parkway 45 minutes from our home.

There I had my first exposure to an orrery, a mechanical model of our solar system, located just outside the star chamber, where I developed an awe for the stars farthest out and the amazing patterns they painted in the night sky.

What a perfect preparation for my exposure to the real thing under the much better star-viewing skies here in our part of Alberta! Why, if it hadn’t been for Dad’s initiative, I’m sure I could never have appreciated Orion, the Pleiades and the Northern Lights nearly so much!

So, thanks, Dad. And Happy Father’s Day!


© 2019 Warren Harbeck

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