Crafting new career at school

Miguel Gómez-Ibáñez sits in his Waltham woodworking studio assembling a pint-size bed. It’s a one-12th-scale model of a Chinese-inspired bed commissioned by a couple from Stow. Building the full-size version will take Gómez-Ibáñez a month.

The clients are lucky. In his new position as executive director of the prestigious North Bennet Street School in Boston, Gómez-Ibáñez will do most of his furniture crafting through other hands.

“I move from career to career, not dropping them but rather adding additional ones,” he said.

The 56- year-old Weston resident started out as a newspaper reporter, then shifted to architecture, running his own firm for 16 years. But after a stroll along Newbury Street in Boston in 1997, he decided to change his focus from buildings to their furnishings.

When he saw an exhibition of furniture created by the students at the North Bennet Street School, he thought: “If I could make something that beautiful, I’d consider myself an accomplished person.”

Soon afterward, Gómez-Ibáñez sold his architecture firm and enrolled in the school for two years. After establishing himself as a furniture maker, he became president of the Furniture Society, a nonprofit industry group based in Asheville, N.C.

Gómez-Ibáñez is the first graduate of the 121-year-old school to become its director. Internationally known for its programs in bookbinding, violin- and piano-making, jewelry-making, preservation carpentry, and furniture-making, North Bennet Street has 150 full-time students and another 150 in various workshops. Its main campus is in Boston’s North End, with a satellite location in Arlington. Students range in age from 17 to 70, with the average a 34-year-old college graduate who, like Gómez-Ibáñez, is making the risky career move of entering the arts.

While his furniture pieces range in price from $2,500 for a dining table or simple desk to $25,000 for an elaborate chest of drawers, Gómez-Ibáñez said it is difficult to make a living building custom furniture. He supplemented his income by working as a consulting architect for Harvard University, allowing him to be somewhat choosy about his commissions.

“My wife has instructions to shoot me before I’ll build a fake antique that’s really an entertainment center — a chest of drawers that’s all goofy and you open up to find a wide-screen TV.”

His furniture is held in prominent collections, including a gallery bench on exhibit at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. His work will be featured in upcoming issues of House & Garden and Traditional Home magazines. One of his creations spent the last three years traveling the country in the Cabinets of Curiosity exhibition.

Among his favorite pieces is a writing desk that he created with painter Joseph Reed . Inspired by a 17th-century formal garden, the desk features an inlaid botanical alphabet with burl veneer and mother-of-pearl. Its 26 drawers each display a miniature oil painting depicting a letter of the alphabet with a corresponding flower. Reflecting its influence, the piece is called “Escritorio,” Spanish for writing desk.

His father emigrated from Spain; his mother was born in China to American missionaries. As a child growing up in Middletown, Conn., Gómez-Ibáñez liked to build things, but found even greater pleasure in watching stuff fall apart.

“I was always destroying things,” such as encouraging the family dog to wag its tail near towers of wooden blocks or blowing up model battleships with firecrackers, he said.

Despite his war play, Gómez-Ibáñez had no interest in the real thing. During the Vietnam War, he considered becoming a conscientious objector. Ultimately, he enlisted in the Navy but never left the country.

The folks at the North Bennet Street School needn’t be concerned with his mischievous past. Gómez-Ibáñez said he long ago got destruction out of his system. If anything, he hopes to build up the school, both in size and reputation.

For more information about the North Bennet Street School, visit www.nbss.org.

A JEWISH MAN IN ARAB WORLD: When Scott Brown of Framingham visited Tunisia this summer, the locals thought he was Lebanese. That was just fine with Brown, who is Jewish.

“I’ve always wanted to study the Arab world in the Middle East,” said Brown, 21, who studied Arabic three hours a day, five days a week during his first three years at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

As if learning the language wasn’t enough of a challenge, he also spent two years persuading his parents to let him make the trip.

He spent two weeks in Tunisia, a North African country perched on the Mediterranean between Algeria and Libya, as part of a Loyola University program, “The Arab World, Islam and US Foreign Policy.” He then moved on to Israel for a fellowship in anti terrorism — and a surprising brush with war .

One of 10 Americans chosen for the Tunisia program, Brown spent much of his time at the US Embassy meeting with Tunisian scholars and law students about their perceptions of American democracy. He was the only one in the program who spoke Arabic, and spent many of his evenings socializing with the locals.

“You can walk up to anyone at a cafe, smoke a shisha, and have a tea,” he said, adding that the Tunisians relished the opportunity to chat about current events with an American who spoke their language.

“I guarantee they’d never met an American Jew who spoke Arabic, but I didn’t tell them my religion for many reasons,” he said. “It’s just being `street smart.’ And, yes, I bit my tongue several times.”

His mastery of the language and culture came in handy one morning when the group trekked out to the Saharan oasis town of Douz for camel rides. There, they were approached by four men on horseback who offered to give them rides. Their services rebuffed, the men performed acrobatic tricks on the horses, and several women in the group snapped photographs despite being cautioned by Brown.

“I warned them not to, and sure enough, the men wanted money and began poking them with long canes,” Brown said.

Brown went over to the men and yelled, “Khaalas ,” which means “enough.” He then pointed to one of the women, announcing in Arabic that she was his wife and that the other women were his relatives. He scolded the men for talking to the women without asking his permission.

“The biggest thing about their culture is honor and shame,” Brown said.

When the leader asked where he was from, Brown said he was an Egyptian. After chatting with Brown in Arabic for a minute or so, the man clasped his hands together and said Egyptians and Tunisians are “ikawan,” meaning brothers, and rode away.

“Everyone thought it was amazing,” Brown said. “I almost peed in my pants.”

The war in Lebanon was already raging when he went to Israel in a group of 38 American students. After some hesitation, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, formed in the wake of 9/11, decided to go ahead with its program on terrorism’s threat to the United States and its allies.

The group toured Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the West Bank, including an operations center in Ramallah that handles counterterrorism efforts in Israel. The students took a field trip to a security fence equipped with sensors that pinpoint the location of intruders.

They were never near the border of Lebanon, Brown said, but did hear gunshots in Bethlehem, and witnessed helicopters patrolling the waters off Tel Aviv for weapons smugglers.

“There is an eerie calm over the country,” Brown said. “They have become used to getting their bags checked each time they walk into a Starbucks, but they are out and not hiding in fear.”

Representatives of the Israeli security services, Mossad and Shin Bet, lectured the students about how the country has managed to function under terrorist threats its entire history.

Brown said some of the technology he learned about seemed right out of “Star Wars.”

But Brown doesn’t see arms alone winning the war on terror. He said one of his biggest frustrations with the Bush a dministration’s approach is that it lacks a “fundamental understanding of Arab and Middle Eastern culture.”

The college senior is applying to graduate school with an eye toward a career in academia or government. Perhaps someday he’ll help bring together lifelong enemies to smoke a shisha and have a tea.

For details on the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, visit www.defenddemocracy.org.

AROUND THE TOWNS: Gregor Trinkaus-Randall of Stow has been named a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, and cited for his efforts to preserve documents in the wake of last year’s hurricanes. . . . Jack Cinquegrana of Newton, a trial lawyer and head of the government enforcement and compliance group at a Boston law firm, Choate Hall & Stewart, has been named president of the Boston Bar Association.

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© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.

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