Looking back on the well-timed events that led to their partnership, New Hat Projects co-founders Kelly Diehl and Elizabeth Williams agree that their common understanding of the business of art, when that understanding prioritizes the integrity of their art over personal gain, is a major contributor to their creative integrity and amicable working relationship. Producing handcrafted wall coverings and art objects that transform ordinary spaces, New Hat specializes in large-scale projects that involve up to several players, naturally increasing their access points to established individuals and industries and to a receptive, local viewership.
Fine artists each in their own right – Diehl earned a degree in sculpture at Washington University in St. Louis and Williams earned her degree in graphic design at Belmont in Nashville – officially formed New Hat in early 2016 in their home base of Nashville, and have since been tapped for design projects by some of the city’s most respected influencers. By all appearances, the hype is deserved. New Hat’s graphic-based wall designs are distinguishable from one another, but not from their creators. Their subject matter ranges from nude figures and geometric shapes to animals and everyday objects, but true to their aesthetic roots, the colors are always bold, the patterns always surprising, and the craftsmanship is always top-notch.
Diehl and Williams’s studio is in an old but charming brick residential duplex in East Nashville, where we sat around a large table in the former dining room. Diehl and Williams are delightfully quirky and have noticeable best friend chemistry. The ease with which they collaborate oozes from their light banter and willingness to share the limelight (think Tina Fey and Amy Poehler).
Elaine Slayton Akin: How did you two meet?
Elizabeth Williams: I think of our meeting as parallel crossroads converging. I was working a corporate job in graphic design, which was pretty stifling. Circa 2012-2013 I met printmaker Bryce McCloud, who was doing some brand collateral for our company. When I visited his workshop, Isle of Printing, I was hooked. I kept my corporate job for a while, and worked for Bryce for free on nights and weekends for a whole year, just soaking it all in. Eventually, I went full-time with Bryce when we launched the Our Town portrait project.
About this time, I met Kelly at a Christmas party through a mutual contact—my former co-worker and her childhood friend. I had such a big friend crush! (laughs) I thought she was so cool. We had a lot in common. We stayed up late talking and having drinks.
ESA: When did you realize you wanted to work together?
Kelly Diehl: Well, we didn’t want to kill each other for one! I joke, but collaborations can be very fragile. It was a big little deal in that it was a little thing in the moment, but bigger in hindsight that we could work together so well. It sounds cliché, but we don’t even need to say full sentences with each other. We have this twin language. Our communication is just that effortless. We knew we had a good thing going.
Before New Hat, I was working at Dozen Bakery, baking and helping run the shop. Elizabeth and I worked together for the first time in 2014, when Claire Meneely, the bakery owner, asked us to design and install a custom wallpaper in Dozen’s bathroom. It was easy and fun, because we were already friends. We had both always worked for someone else, and enjoyed building something for us for a change. Because of the success of this project, among other things, obviously, we had very little fear of risk going into business. We were like, let’s do this.
ESA: Why wallpaper?
KD: I loved art from an early age. I studied sculpture at Washington University in St. Louis, so spatial awareness has always come naturally to me. After college, I worked with a muralist and an interior designer. I think a lot of people are afraid of making large-scale art, but figuring out how to scale up a project became easier after those experiences. Plus, Elizabeth saw large-scale printmaking from A to Z while working with Bryce, so we weren’t intimidated.
EW: I was not your typical art kid. I remember helping my grandma with flower arrangements for nursing home bazaars at eight years old in East Tennessee. (laughs) I was a cheerleader in high school and grew up in a conservatively religious family. I ended up moving away from home and eventually studying graphic design at Belmont.
On the heels of the Dozen project, I wanted to keep going. One of the wallpaper installers at Dozen casually commented, “nobody’s doing this here [in Nashville]”—custom wall coverings. It’s popular in NYC and London, but we knew we could be ahead of the curve regionally, knowing all along it wouldn’t just be wallpaper. We were translating our fine art backgrounds into interior design for an immersive, artful experience.
KD: Our next installation was in artist Vadis Turner’s historic home. She kind of gave us carte blanche to do whatever we wanted in this hallway area. The finished piece was pretty psychedelic. We had a “layered worlds” theme … really colorful with mixed patterns. I remember thinking, this is weird, and that means move forward [with wallpaper].
ESA: What is your co-working style, and how do you divvy up responsibilities?
EW: There is no formula to working with someone. Like any relationship stuff, you have to be able to admit your weaknesses and when you’re wrong. We have a very trusting partnership. I know my corporate job helped me to dissociate and not take things too personally.
As far as roles, Kelly is really hands-on. She conceptualizes the installs, and she hand-draws every design before they’re scanned into the computer. She is a master of efficiency. Stretching materials as far as they can go is really important to us. She’s also really great at administrative stuff—bookkeeping, etcetera.
KD: And Elizabeth is a design wizard. She makes things into finished products. And client relations! She knows people, in the literal sense but also she knows how people operate and how to connect with them.
EW: Thank you, corporate job.
ESA: What is your process, from concept to install, for completing a custom job?
KD: Every custom job starts with someone reaching out—usually an architect or other design professional if it’s a commercial client, or an individual if it’s residential. We meet, hear their vision and vibe, and then get to work.
EW: We put together a proposal with two to three different directions the project could go in. This includes imagery, production processes, panels, wallpapers, screens. We get to think pie-in-the-sky here, and then whittle it down later. We don’t just do wallpaper. Sometimes an installation can involve lots of mixed media.
KD: We’ll go back and forth with the client until we’re on the same page about the design. Oftentimes we’re helping them solve a visual problem: how will we make this space special?
EW: Once the artwork is in the final state, we take it to a local screen printer for production. We used to make wallpaper sheets at first, but the folks at Grand Palace Silkscreen are always down for a challenge and helped us figure out roll printing.
ESA: Because you’ve turned your art into a successful business, do you ever feel like you’ve sold out? And then, how do you balance art and commerce?
EW: We are artists first. Technology expedites a lot of our process, but we still take the long way where it matters. Every project takes shape organically, just like fine art. Color, form, aesthetics, geometry, architecture — all play a big part in our decision-making.
We’ve thought, are we making disposable shit for rich people’s houses? Artists as capitalists do give up some things for a greater goal. But there is always a way to imbue beauty in someone’s life, including your own. There’s nothing wrong with being financially successful with that. Bottom line is, is the art true to you? No matter how much money it makes you.
And we still do art exhibitions. We were part of “Wearable Surfaces,” a show at Zeitgeist Gallery that paired up local fashion designers and visual artists to create one-of-a-kind pieces. We’re also working on a collaboration with local ceramic artist Rebecca Blevins. We’re creating these vessels with chainlink attachments, inspired by Catholic incense burners. We have dreams of artist residencies.
KD: We’re at the nexus of art and commerce. Designers are considered artists, and businesses use artists as consultants now. We are definitely benefitting from the newness of Nashville’s economic vitality. There are lots of people taking risks. Noelle Hotel is a good example. They’re using an age-old hospitality industry formula, but executing it differently by using only local talent for every aspect of design. But artisanal is even trendy. I think we received our best compliment from Van Tucker [CEO of Nashville Fashion Alliance (NFA) with whom New Hat worked in 2017]. She said we seemed genuine and true to ourselves, and that it shines through without even knowing us, and that our relationship is reflected in every piece of business.
ESA: Speaking of Noelle Hotel, what are you guys up to there?
KD: These boutique hotel developers are restoring a historic Art Deco building downtown that will be the Noelle. We’re two weeks out to install there.* We’re designing the wallpaper for a foyer-type room in the women’s public bathroom on the basement level for people visiting the restaurants down there. It’ll be next to an installation by Bryce [McCloud], too, which is pretty cool.
EW: Our design for Noelle was inspired by ancient Egyptian tomb motifs—cosmic stages, portals to other worlds, burial attire—because they’re both underground. There’s some optical play going on, too, a mixture between Chanel’s signature interweaving of gold chains and an homage to Minerva, a distinctly feminine goddess. We wanted to tap into the wisdom of grandmothers for generations back, since this is a space specifically for women. We landed on a copper ink on mint green paper.
ESA: What are you guys most excited about right now?
KD: We are in the process of having our first direct-to-customer product line printed in Chicago. It will be available online, with a potential showroom option. The old tradition of wallpaper dates back to the 1500s, and we’re trying to pick it up in our own, different way. We’ll focus on the modular aspect of wall coverings, so that it creates less waste depending on how you install it.
*This interview was conducted in early December 2017, just weeks before the December 21 opening of Noelle Hotel.
Elaine Slayton Akin is an arts writer and nonprofit professional in Nashville by way of Little Rock. She is a member of the Inter-Museum Council of Nashville. Her writing has been featured in Nashville Arts, Arkansas Life, Number, and At Home in Arkansas magazines.