By Nicole Keiper
Even if you don’t know local art and design studio New Hat’s name, you’ve likely come across their work — bold, creative, custom wallpaper designs and interior installations — placed in those spaces and others, all across Nashville.
The studio, led by Kelly Diehl and Elizabeth Williams, came to its current interiors focus by doing — Dozen owner Claire Meneely asked the two artists and designers to draw up some custom wallpaper for her bakery, and the process ended up feeling, Diehl says, like a “more financially feasible way of putting our art on a wall.”
The broader business potential… kind of snuck up.
“Our wallpaper installer planted the seed, when he installed one of the Dozen bathrooms,” Williams says. “He was like, ‘You guys should do this, nobody else is doing this.’ Six months later, we were figuring out what our business plan would be.”
In the nearly two years since, New Hat’s reach has steadily spread: new restaurant and hotel jobs, a “Best of Nashville” nod, a Domino magazine feature, a commission from Grammy-winning band Paramore for the Paramore Art + Friends celebration. This May, the studio also launched Collection One, a debut line of ready-to-buy wallpaper, home goods and wearables.
Young artists looking for a creatively rewarding but commercially practical path could look to New Hat as Nashville trailblazers — and at least 16 already have.
This fall, Belmont University tapped Williams (a Belmont alumna) and Diehl to lead one of the school’s Master Class programs, designed to give students an on-the-ground view into working in their chosen field.
Past Master Class sessions have included musicians (The Band Perry led one in 2014), photographers (Belfast-based war photographer Paul Seawright, in 2017), actors (Tony winner Levi Kreis, also in 2017), and other creative professionals. For fall 2018 — since Belmont had recently acquired Franklin’s O’More School of Design — assistant professor of art Christine Rogers saw New Hat as a particularly snug fit.
For the weeklong program, Diehl and Williams chose to give the art and design students an experience that felt “as real-life to what we do at New Hat as possible,” Williams says.
They set up a job: designing a custom wallpaper project for the circa-1850s Belmont Mansion, which brims with vintage wallpaper.
“The Belmont Mansion then became the client,” Williams says. “We met with the client, we decided the space where the wallpaper would go, and (the students) split up into teams and had to create a design and a proposal, and learn about the pricing and business things that you have to do along the way to take job from start to finish.”
Each team was coached through developing a design suited for the stately manse, then tasked with presenting a proposal to the Mansion’s executive director, Mark Brown, and his team.
“It was all about looking at the space,” Williams says of the Belmont students’ charge. “The space is historic — ‘What can you create that speaks to the history of the space, but in a way that isn’t obvious?’”
Although the students won’t be issuing invoices, the job was pretty close to real — Brown and Co. chose a winning design, and it’ll be produced using the same method as New Hat’s wallpapers, by Nashville screenprinting company Grand Palace, before it’s affixed (semi-permanently, on removable panels) inside the Mansion.
That winning design — along with all the other designs produced by the Master Class students — is set to be unveiled at an event in mid-January at the Mansion, date and time to be announced.
For their part, Williams and Diehl left the experience energized, impressed, and confident about the future of design talent in Nashville.
“(The students) did something in five days that we usually say four weeks for us to do it right,” Williams says. “All of (the proposals) were content-rich, really great ideas, and they presented them so well… I was like, ‘These kids are gonna be fine.’”