The Boston firm J/Brice Design International Inc. has designed more than 200 hotels around the world since it was founded in 1989, and today, most of the firm’s work takes place in the Middle East. Globe reporter Katie Johnston spoke to chief executive Jeffrey Brice Ornstein about the challenges of working in the Middle East, the hefty baggage fees he pays when he travels, and dreaming of sheiks. Here’s what she found out.
1Ornstein spends about three months a year in the Middle East, where he is known as “Mr. Jeff” — and where every project takes twice as long to complete as it would in the United States. The extreme heat and humidity drive the sheiks out of the country in the summer, so little business is conducted then, Ornstein said. In addition, most hotels are financed by wealthy families instead of banks, so there are fewer deadlines driving construction.
“If you’re going to do business there — it took me 10 years to learn this, and I’m not exaggerating — you get on the plane, you take your American business head, unscrew it, and put it down. You take your Arabian business head and screw it on.”
2Ornstein predicted the fall of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi on Facebook. J/Brice designed the Royal Tulip Alexandria , and then-president Morsi was scheduled to attend the opening on June 21. But the Egyptian Army chiefs to whom Ornstein reported told him shortly before the opening that Morsi would not be attending because of changes about to take place.
“I put this on Facebook, probably around the 15th of June, saying ‘I’m so bummed, I thought I was going to meet the president, now he’s not invited.’ And to the day, it happened exactly as the general said. June 30 was the demonstration, and he was arrested on July 3.”
3Laying out public spaces in the Middle East is tricky because women and men often have to be separated.
“When you design a ballroom, you have to design two distinct spaces, so there’s one for men and one for women. One day it might just be an electronics convention and it’s all men, so you don’t necessarily want to design ballroom one and ballroom two. So you have to design them together, but you have to make ways where there are circuitous routes so that the genders don’t mix.”
4Ornstein struck a bargain with the ghosts said to haunt the Queen Mary, the 1930s ocean liner that is now a hotel in Long Beach, Calif. The clients who hired Ornstein to renovate the ship were so spooked, they refused to turn off the lights when they went to sleep. So when Ornstein heard creaking noises before an overnight stay, he addressed the spirits directly:
“OK ghosts, here’s the deal, I am here to make you beautiful, OK? So you don’t want me to be irritable and not get a good night’s sleep. So just you do your thing in another stateroom and leave me alone.”
5Ornstein has gone on safari in Africa, spent a month in Turkey, heli-skied in New Zealand, and swum with 15-foot hammerhead sharks off the Galapagos Islands. He was terrified of the sharks at first, but soon learned they didn’t have a taste for humans.
“They’re not interested in you because they know you’re not what they eat. After about 20 minutes you’re chasing them.”
6Baggage fees may have an effect on Ornstein’s afterlife. The designer has to travel with samples of wood, glass tiles, rubber flooring, stone — many of which have to be shown to clients in multiple cities and can lead to more than $1,000 in extra charges on each trip.
“In my next life, I’m going to be a diamond merchant because everything will fit in my breast pocket.”
7Ornstein dreams about sheiks. He is decorating an 85,000-quare-foot summer palace for the family of Sheik Hassan al Kabbani, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with eight kitchens, a car wash, a bowling lane, multiple swimming pools, and housing for a staff of 40.
“I texted him just this weekend. I woke up and I was like, ‘Hassan, I just had the weirdest dream that somehow I was in possession of a lion cub and I had to get it out of the country, and of course, I called you. And you and I were coming up with all these kooky ideas about how to get the lion cub out of Saudi.’ ”Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.