An Israeli-born woodworker crafts his share of the American Dream with his custom-made furniture business.
Standing in his tastefully decorated Fells Point furniture showroom and surrounded by his masterpieces, Shlomi Abukassis says he feels most blissful and at ease when working in his woodshop.
“When I’m working, I’m in heaven,” says Abukassis, a custom furniture designer and owner of Kaya Furniture Design Gallery on Fleet Street. “From the smell of the wood to the noises of the machines, I feel connected to it all. I feel like it’s a part of my veins.
“Sometimes, I leave my home at 4 a.m. just to be in my shop,” he says, beaming. “I can’t wait to get to work.”
Born and raised in the small Israeli town of Beit Shean along the Jordan River Valley, Abukassis, 51, says he spent much of his childhood in and out of bomb shelters. Still, Abukassis, who is one of 15 children, remembers his younger days as filled with love, happiness and art.
“I had a wonderful childhood in Israel,” says Abukassis, who now lives in the Annapolis area. “Even with all the rockets and going in and out of bomb shelters, it was wonderful. I’m very sensitive, and art, drawing and dancing have always spoken to me.
“I’ve been a dreamer and artist emotionally all my life, and that is what I would do at night growing up. I would draw and dream.”
That passion for creating is what helped Abukassis pursue his version of the American Dream. He moved to the Baltimore metropolitan area with his daughter, Kaya, and then-wife in 1995 shortly after the first suicide bus bombing on Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Street.
“After the bombing, I felt it was too hectic to raise a child in that area, so we moved,” says Abukassis, who as a U.S. citizen voted in his first presidential election in 2016. “When we came to the States, I worked as a set designer for different theaters in Fells Point. But when my green card expired, I needed to find something else to do and that’s when I started apprenticing under a woodworker.”
After about a year of apprenticing, Abukassis’ mentor, woodworker Dennis Burns, left the field and turned over the business to him.
“I started doing furniture on my own without really knowing how to make furniture,” Abukassis says. “Every time I would get a commission, I would go to Barnes & Noble to look at furniture books and get visual ideas. I would then go back and make the furniture, and slowly my business took off.”
Since opening his own shop, the amiable Abukassis has sold hundreds of pieces of his custom-crafted furniture, cabinetry and built-ins. His main inspiration for his designs comes from the wood itself, and he travels all over the country to gather the perfect pieces he needs.
“I’m obsessed with the grain of trees and the grain of wood,” Abukassis says. “I want the wood to be the subject of my furniture. Once I look at the wood, I then decide what to make that will be beautiful and practical. But the wood is always the initial attraction.”
Abukassis says his favorite piece of all of his works is what he calls “The Gigi.” A sideboard and desk named in honor of his mother-in-law, “The Gigi” took him 250 hours to complete, has 52 tiny drawers and is made up of multiple woods including rosewood, quilted mahogany and Caroline maple.
“All of my furniture is named after family members,” says Abukassis, who remarried a few years after coming to the United States and has two daughters — the aforementioned Kaya, now 24, a Krieger Schechter Day School graduate and current law school student, and Shoshi, 8, an artist who spends her free time writing and painting. “‘The Gigi’ was a challenge for me, but with its completion came the realization for me and my wife that I really can make furniture.”
While there have been times of struggle and adversity for Abukassis and his family in the U.S., he says he wouldn’t change anything about his American journey and couldn’t be happier with what he has accomplished professionally and personally.
“I love Israel, but America has the American Dream and it is strong,” says Abukassis. “In Israel, it would have been so hard for me to achieve what I have been able to achieve in this country. Here, if you believe in yourself, you are honest and work hard, you can fulfill your dreams.”
Kaya Furniture Design is located at 1900 Fleet St. For information, visit kayafurnituredesign.com.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.