Wallpaper just the beginning for New Hat’s creative collaborative

Portrait by Sanford Myers
Spaces by Danielle Kirk and Heidi Ross

It all started in the bathroom of a bakery.

It was at Dozen Bakery in the Wedgewood-Houston part of town where Kelly Diehl was working as a pastry chef. She pulled in her longtime friend and designer Elizabeth Williams for a project that was ambitious and a bit off the wall — creating a vibrant covering for the bathroom’s walls.

“Basically we were both on similar life trajectories, going down the path of, ‘What do we do next?” Williams says. “It made sense that we started something together. I had never done wallpaper before, and she had never done wallpaper, but we were like ‘We’ll figure it out.’ And we did it.”

Diehl’s background is in fine art. She created small sculptures, collages, paintings, drawings — anything that sparked her interest — while also working at Dozen as a baker sculpting some seriously masterful croissants. Williams’ background was more in design; she spent years working with artist Bryce McCloud at Isle of Printing after leaving the marketing startup Emma.

They clicked as collaborators just as much as they had as friends.

The response from the Dozen Bakery bathroom spurred project after project, and their work has popped up in some of the coolest spaces in town — the powder room at Germantown Inn, artist Vadis Turner and Clay Ezell’s Home, Henrietta Red, Caviar & Bananas and East Nashville boutiques Lemon Laine and Stash.

“It has been mostly word of mouth,” Williams says. But once someone finds them, the collaboration process is a definite back-and-forth between them and the client.

“We’ll meet with them and get what their vibe is, what they’re looking for,” Williams says. “We’ll distill that and present the client with some pattern options. It’s always an ongoing conversation about what’s the best substrate to use, changes of palettes and all that.”

The notoriously difficult installation process has improved over time, too. It’s even harder for them because they use screen-printed art paper sheets instead of typical wallpaper rolls. But they hired a pro and began to learn. Now it is all part of the process.

“It was a lot of labor,” Diehl says. “We had no idea what we were doing at that point. So he showed us the ropes, and from there we got the basics down and kept practicing and getting better at it.”

And they both give props to their families for always supporting their creative and artistic drives — a luxury not all creatives have. It was at home they learned the power of hard work and problem solving.

“My dad is an entrepreneur, so he was excited that we were embarking on this journey,” Williams says. “He was like, ‘Awesome! Go for it. Don’t be afraid.’”

“I think that’s essential for an artist to really accept themselves and what their gift is to share, and having people support you, because it’s not easy,” Diehl agrees.

With their families’ support and their drive to create, New Hat was born, a name that came out of their desire to try as many new things as they can. Plus it’s simple, symmetrical and easy to remember.

“We can spell it,” Diehl jokes.

Williams says their aesthetic is older motifs with an injection of newer ideas that hopefully keeps the result from being too trendy. “That’s really important to us, that they stand the test of time,” she says.

“Our designs are definitely a different niche than a lot of other things,” Williams says. “We don’t really do illustrated, floral, or the more kitschy designs. We’re more bold and contemporary — graphic and architectural.”

Next up is a set of six wallpapers for a retail product line in April, as well as a collaboration with a local ceramic artist doing a vessel that coordinates with one of the wallpapers.

“We fancy ourselves surface designers, not just wallpaper designers, and we hope to enter into more projects that allow us to do more of that,” Williams says. “We get to luckily work with some cool architecture friends in town who are letting us put out some more wild ideas.”

Moving beyond wallpaper will hopefully give them longevity in the design world.

“Wallpaper was sort of the jumping-off point because that was the first project we did,” Diehl adds.

They pull from individual inspiration, fashion and architecture for their collaborations, like Diehl’s recent book find about Tennessee coverlets, or from fashion and architecture. But at their core both are tapping into the history and heritage that comes with creating textiles, something that crosses all cultures and continents.

“Women’s work is a huge part of what we care about,” Williams says. “We care a lot about weaving textiles, functional art, ceramics — the decorative arts that have not only been functional for people throughout the years, but women normally made them and they carried stories. Patterns have always carried stories, and so we’re all about that aspect. It’s like using the history, but also changing it to represent where you were at that moment in time.”