Artists Elizabeth Williams and Kelly Diehl of New Hat Projects in Nashville
Former art students Kelly Diehl and Elizabeth Williams opened New Hat Projects in 2016, an art-and-design studio they opened in Nashville specializing in handmade, screen-printed custom wallpaper. Diehl happened to be working at a bakery, whose owner wanted the bathroom to have an artistic feel. Diehl and Williams were hired, and they began by hand-painting patterns which they screen-printed onto wallpaper. “It ended up being so popular that it was a natural progression into doing other jobs in the professional wallpaper world,” says Diehl.
They originally thought the project would be an isolated endeavor. But Williams recounts feeling particularly exhausted at her day job one day, and came to Diehl with the idea to do another project. Since then their passion has codified into an LLC: New Hat Projects. Their client list includes the Nashville restaurant Henrietta Red, the Noelle Hotel, the Germantown Inn, several private and historical homes, and more. Learn more about Diehl and Williams, as we discuss coming out of art school, mental rabbit holes of disaster, odd jobs and artificial intelligence.
Both of you went to art school, and making a living as a working artist is no easy feat. How have you pulled it off?
Kelly: Art school can leave you feeling really burned out. You have all these facilities and support, and then when you graduate that all goes away. And you think, “What the hell am I going to do now?” Which is why we worked these jobs for small businesses, where we each witnessed the process of how to build something with very few people and few resources. That was great schooling in starting our own venture. We got to the point where opening a business was demystified, and we were committed to being happier and creating our own work. We did a lot of research about how to do our taxes, how to proceed legally, and in many ways, it was really just the right place at the right time. You go through different points in your youth, and it makes complete sense that we could only be at this point right now.
Elizabeth: I had actually done a corporate gig and transitioned out of that into working at a small art business. I knew I didn’t want to be a corporate designer, and then I experienced the struggle of working for a small art business. Which is that even if you’re getting cool projects, there’s not always enough money to pay everyone. I discovered I’m OK with being poor if I’m not building towards something for someone else.
We didn’t know if anyone would be interested in what we were doing, and no one else was trying to do it. We have tried really hard to make all of our projects as conceptual and art-focused as possible, while also still solving problems for commercial businesses, which is a very difficult line to toe. It’s definitely a balance. Coming from a design background and knowing that design is seen as a fine-art form now, that makes me feel like what we’re doing is really adding beauty and value to the world, rather than just working on projects. But it is very hard to be an art business. It has to be commercialized somehow in this day and age, I think. We found a way somehow.
Did either of you have a moment where you felt very strongly that you were going to be an artist?
Kelly: I think art was always part of my identity, ever since I was little. I was always drawn to artistic output, and luckily my parents were so supportive that I never second-guessed it. But I also always loved decor and textiles, and now I can see how natural it is to be in this decor-focused interiors industry. I also worked for a muralist for a long time, and always had a spatial experience that makes being in this world fluid for me.
Elizabeth: Thinking back on this—I don’t know if I’ve even told you this, Kelly—I took an art class in high school where one assignment was to make a larger version of an object out of chicken wire and fabric. I actually made a bra—it made me so happy [laughs].
My grandmother was also really into crafting. She volunteered at a nursing home where they’d do things like paint plates and put flower arrangements together. They’d also have bazaars where they’d sell their crafts. My mom would drop me off with my grandmother, and we’d just make stuff. Being creative was always part of the fabric of my being in that way. My dad thought I would be a lawyer, because I was argumentative, often for principle. I didn’t know what I was going to be. I loved art classes at the end of high school, so I went to a liberal-arts college where I wanted to study studio art. But my parents told me I needed to do something more practical, a tale often told, so that’s how I arrived at graphic design.
Your story sounds so serendipitous. How did you originally meet?
Kelly: We actually met through a mutual friend. One of my oldest friends here was working with Elizabeth when she was at her corporate job. When we met, I was instantly attracted to her energy, style and sense of humor. We were fast friends.
Elizabeth: Kelly had moved back to Nashville from St. Louis after college, and it was nice, because I didn’t have many fine-art friends. Now I feel like you should surround yourself with people who interest you, and it was really refreshing to have Kelly come into my life at that point. We had great conversations and were on these parallel paths guided by what we wanted out of life, incidentally.
K: Pretty kismet-y.
I imagine over the course of your business and friendship, you’ve encountered conflict and disagreements. How have you handled that?
Kelly: I’m going to sound so corny. We’re each conservative in different ways and risky in others. But we’re different, so we’re always balancing. The most important is that we trust each other so completely, so regardless of how we’re feeling we’re always able to communicate. That’s the main thing, really.
Elizabeth: I think it’s also helpful that we’ve both approached running a business from the same point of not really knowing how to do it. It’s never like, “I have the right answer, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.” There’s not a lot of posturing or ego, because we have the same exact goal. I know some people have problems with that, but we’ve been lucky—knock on wood—because we’re still small. We can still solve everything between us.
How do you approach each project?
Elizabeth: Each project is different—sorry, that’s really boring [laughs]. We try to dig into something with the client so we have some sort of starting point with the motif. We’ve had people say, “We don’t care, do whatever you want!” Which is, mentally, a rabbit hole of disaster. We do installation work, too, so when you’re given the opportunity to do something else, your brain goes wild. We have a meeting, see the space and try to establish a baseline concept with the client. And we go from there to establish some concepts. It’s fairly straightforward.
Kelly: The Noelle Hotel is a good example. It’s a boutique hotel in an Art Deco-era building, with flourishes inside that influenced the imagery we came up with, which was this weird Egyptian crypt kind of feel.
E: Right. We did a basement bathroom for them, which was kind of shrouded in mystery and weirdness.
What are you excited about right now? What’s inspiring you?
Elizabeth: I have been recently obsessed with Bauhaus art and that movement. I have this book called “Bauhaus Women,” which was released in 2008 to coincide with the MoMA exhibit. It’s about the lives of these women who were in this crazy post-World War II situation, and their functional art speaks so deeply to what we do. I love reading about their philosophies about art and why they make it. They weren’t even allowed in the architecture school at that time, because people believed women couldn’t think like architects. They did all kinds of amazing things.
I also listen to a lot of podcasts about artificial intelligence that cover everything from automation and learning algorithms to how our intelligence is becoming decentralized. I won’t even get into my robot bee conspiracy theories [laughs]. There’s a Radiolab podcast about driverless cars, which really got me into the AI rabbit hole. There are several more I love: Learning Machines, Concerning AI, Partially Derivative. I would also recommend reading Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Glass Cage.”
Kelly: This is so banal, but I’ve really been into “The Minimalist Mindset.” It’s a life treatise on prioritizing your life. Running a small business takes up a lot of mental space and heart space, because we care so deeply about all of it. So I’ve been inspired to shave off what no longer fulfills me or inspires me anymore. The design world is also really inspiring to be in right now. Art is coming off of this pedestal which historically has been lifted above everything else by Western white men. But this confluence of art and fashion and furniture and hospitality and design brands—it’s becoming mixed together in a cool way, with fresh exciting work.
New Hat Projects will have a new product launch at Wilder in Nashville on May 19.
Cover image courtesy of Henrietta Red restaurant. All images courtesy of New Hat Projects.