Career switch pays for Harvard engineer

For artisans who specialize in building exquisite, one-of-a-kind furniture pieces by hand, the event amounts to an Academy Awards of craftsmanship in New England. It’s an annual competition that attracts more than 250 skilled craftsman from around the country, each vying for the best-of-show award.

But for North Bennet Street School student Michael Greenberg, last October’s Fine Furnishings & Crafts Show in Providence had an especially gratifying outcome.

Greenberg, a mechanical-engineer-turned-furniture maker, won best of show for a traditional Chippendale-style chair. Judges chose the chair from more than two dozen traditional and contemporary student pieces entered in this year’s competition.

The award is the crowning achievement of Greenberg’s two years of intense training at the prestigious crafts academy (www.nbss.org) in Boston’s North End. Greenberg was set to graduate in January from the school’s cabinet and furniture-making program, and will embark on a full-time career as a studio furniture maker at a woodworking cooperative in Concord, Mass.

But, more importantly, the award validates a career change that seemed a bit extreme to some of the 35-year-old Greenberg’s friends.

With engineering degrees from Tufts University and Stanford, Greenberg had enjoyed a successful 10-year career as a mechanical engineer at Harvard when he decided to go in a different direction.

“As an engineer, designing things with a computer was OK, I suppose,” he says. But he says he reached a point where he wanted to do something more hands-on.

“I wanted the satisfaction of actually completing the process — of making something from start to finish with my hands.”

A friend whose sister had become a violin maker after attending North Bennet suggested Greenberg look into the school’s cabinet and furniture-making program. (The school also provides full- and part-time programs in bookbinding, jewelry making, carpentry, locksmithing and piano technology.)

After discussing the idea with his wife, he applied and was accepted into the program a few months later.

Greenberg says his award-winning Chippendale chair was inspired by the traditional furniture style of the American South, which tends to feature cleaner lines and less ornate detailing. The wood he chose — Peruvian mahogany — is also fairly traditional, but not easy to find.

Greenberg used compound angle joinery to connect the seat rails, legs, posts and stretchers. He stained the wood to produce a uniform color before adding multiple layers of shellac as a protective finish.

Greenberg estimates five weeks of steady work went into creating the chair, valued at $2,500. The piece was on display at the Fuller Craft Museum (www.fullercraft.org) in Brockton, Mass., through January as part of an exhibition of student and alumni work entitled, “Traditional Craftsmanship, Nontraditional Education: Works from the North Bennet Street School.”