Speaking Up

For Dina Kanawati, Interior Design Is About Storytelling

Dina Kanawati

In a historic courthouse building in Washington County, Va., there’s a Tiffany stained-glass window. The structure was built in 1853. The window was installed in 1919, in honor of WWI. Soon, that building will undergo renovations, including the addition of terrazzo—layered, geometric squares, designed to complement the original stained-glass piece. Among other options, the building’s judges selected this design not only because they like how it will complement existing features, but because it’s distinctly timeless. It’s also distinctly reminiscent of Islamic art—a subtle reflection of the designer who came up with the plan.

In the eighth grade, Dina Kanawati’s career goals were purely American. She wanted to be a quarterback, she says, laughing. “I never played, but I just loved watching,” she adds. “That was back in the day of Dan Marino and Brett Favre.” But that same year her attention was diverted to another possibility when her parents decided to renovate.

Kanawati’s mother has a degree in fine arts but never had the opportunity to apply that to a career. Instead, “She found ways to put that to work in her daily life,” Kanawati says. “She’s a visual thinker and art is her mode of expression, so she was very passionate about the renovation and design of our house.” In the end, that energy was infectious. When Kanawati applied to Drexel University for her undergraduate studies, she selected interior design as a major and later earned her master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania.

Like her mother, Kanawati’s artistic side is multi-faceted. After completing her education, she entered the field, working mainly on healthcare facilities, then spent several years designing for hospitality. After joining Moseley Architects, she proved her versatility and established a niche in courtrooms and legal facilities. But deep down, she says she’s a storyteller—not only figuratively, through her work as a designer, but literally: In her spare time, she’s writing a novel.

“I’ve just resigned myself to accept that writing is my natural art and I’ve learned to be an interior designer,” she says, laughing. “I love writing design specs.”

It’s the technical aspects of her work that she feels a particular connection with—how things come together, she says. But, with a master’s degree in historic preservation, she also excels at historic site interpretation. Every building has a story, she suggests, whether it’s historic or not.

“When I’m finding the identity of a building, that’s when I find the deepest connection.”

“I find that the part I connect with most includes when I’m trying to honor what came before and hinting at it through my work, by incorporating it while still doing something completely new,” Kanawati says.

Like any artist, there’s another story that often finds its way into Kanawati’s designs: her own. But that story hasn’t always been easy to tell, she says.

Kanawati is Arab-American. Growing up, “At home, we were Syrian,” she says. “We spoke Arabic and ate Arab food … We were close to our cousins and always spoke Arabic to one another. We knew all of the classic Arab TV shows.” At the same time, “We were Syrian at home, but American outside of the home,” she explains. Now she regrets that, she says.

In Syria, people from her parents’ generation grew up in an environment where “you kept your head down,” she says. “They brought that over here, too, thinking, ‘If I’m invisible I’m not going to bring attention.’” But with that duality comes consequences, she suggests. “I’ve always been in the middle somewhere,” she says. “I’m too Syrian to be American and too American to be Syrian. I’m too pale to be a person of color, but I’m too dark to be a white person.” But that dilemma is changing, she suggests.

In her work, she leans on dark tones, jewel tones, high contrast and high visual energy, as she experiments with incorporating intricate patterns that have visual interest but aren’t overwhelming. “I find myself adding a little Islamic geometry, as I’m starting to dip my toe into this,” she says.

Washington County Courthouse textiles and finishes

In addition to expressing her identity through design elements, such as those for the Washington County court building, Kanawati also serves on Moseley Architects’ Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. She assumed the role, “to ensure that all of us have a voice and are recognized,” she says. “We don’t have to blend in. There are little instances of me everywhere,” she adds, pointing to a small magnet with an image of a street scene from Damascus, Syria.

In the past, Kanawati says she found herself in places where she felt she had to conceal her identity. Today, “I don’t really advertise it, but there are plenty of moments when it’s front and center … I’m trying to be more intentional about it.”

Sometimes she feels invisible, she says, adding, “But I’m working on being more visible. Having a voice on the EDI committee is one way … I’m hoping we reach a point where it’s known that Moseley Architects has people like me, of my heritage, and it encourages other Arabs and Muslims to seek jobs here … Hopefully I’m establishing a beacon for others to come to.”