Baltimore Magazine, March 2010 | Made to Order, by Martha Thomas

Woodworker Shlomi Abukassis, owner of Kaya Design Corp., has made three secretary-style desks so far and the last, he says is the best. “The dovetails work better, the connection of the wood is better,” he says. Sure, he’s had two to practice on—the first he made on a whim and it sat in his home until it was purchased by a doctor in Texas who saw the photo on his Kaya Design website. A few months later, a customer in California saw the same photo and commissioned desk number two. But the third secretary benefits from more than perfected craftsmanship. There’s also the connection to his clients, Dennis and Lynette Burns.

“Dennis and Lynette are like family,” says Abukassis, who came to Baltimore from Israel in 1995. One of 14 children, he grew up in a small town near the Jordan River, and worked in theater until he met an actrss from Baltimore. They married, had a child, and moved to the U.S. Soon the marriage dissolved, and the young father found himself hanging out in a Fells Point coffee shop. “I heard a guy talking about woodworking and followed him back to his shop,” Abukassis recalls.

Dennis Burns has his own memory: “Shlomi said he had experience with a band saw,” he laughs. “Later, I learned he used a saw for cutting meat in a butcher shop.” But Burns took him on as an apprentice of sorts, and the two worked in a wood shop in the St. Stanislaus Church on Ann Street. Dennis and Lynette Burns welcomed him as a member of their family. Eventually Dennis, an engineer, “biled out” of woodworking, as he describes it, and went to work for Northrop Grumman. By this time, Abukassis, who had worked in the shops of both Centerstage and the Vagabond Players, has embraced woodworking as his calling.

The turning point came after he sliced off the tips of his left fingers and thumb with a table saw. He collected the bits and took them to Union Memorial, where only his thumb was successfully reattached. After the accident, he says, “I became more relaxed and focused. until that point, I was struggling to survive, but after that I wanted to make a difference as a craftsman, to make something unique.”

Not long after, he started collecting a variety of different woods—congolo, rosewood, mahogany. “I had a picture in my head,” he says. “I built the legs, I built [a desk] apron.” Next, working with cardboard as a template, he completed the first version of the desk with its drop-down top concealing drawers and cubby holes, its mix of woods and inlays, and its leather-topped writing surface. Abukassis says he likes the idea of a desk designed for writing and personal matters. “At one time, people had private desks, locked with keys. With the birth of computers, they’ve lost their importance.”

Dennis and Lynette Burns asked for a secretary to place in the entry hall of their Ellicott City home, and Abukassis complied, creating a piece that , while seemingly simple in design, contains a variety of woods, each contributing color and pattern. The main wood, Laotian ebony has a stark grain of black and rich auburn, while the leopard wood, used for shelves inside, is spotted like the car. The inlays are quilted polar.

Each one gets better: Shlomi Abukassis of Kaya Design with one of his secretary-style desks. Photo by Mitro Hood.

It’s not the first contribution Abukassis has made to the Burnses’ home. He helped Dennis lay the hardwood flooring, and designed and built the bookcases that line the walls in the front room. He created congolo wood panels above the fireplace, and presented the family with a Mission-style coffee table one Christmas.

Along with furniture building, Abukassis has done large-scale projects like designing and constructing the remodeled interior of the former Miss Irene’s restaurant in Fells Point (now Poe Boys Oyster Bar), the reception area for the Elizabeth Jacob Spa & Salon in Parkton, and the Pitango Gelato interior in Fells Point. But he says furniture has become his passion. “Furniture can have real feeling,” he says.