By Jeanne D’Arcy, Mid-City Messenger
The pandemic nearly shut down Stronghold Studios in Mid-City. As the sub-contracted art department of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Stronghold was in mid-production for the 2020 festival when the COVID-19 restrictions hit.
The 25-year-old company makes the façades for the Jazz Fest food booths, the stage headers and those iconic signs, by Stronghold co-founder Nan Parati, for each performance. All that came to a screeching halt.
Not only did the need for Jazz Fest installations disappear, so did most of their other design and build work, much of it for large events such as festivals and concert tours. “We had one job between then and December 1st,” co-owner Coco Darrow said.
Coco and Ian Darrow are starting to take over the business from Ian’s father, William Darrow, who co-founded Stronghold in the mid-1990s. In the spring, Stronghold Studios made a successful application to the Paycheck Protection Program, and this allowed them to get by.
“Ian, who has a background in industrial design, was designing furniture, and we used that time to work on our marketing and other business strategies,” Coco said. “But the first of December, we realized we had to have that ‘hard conversation’ about whether the business could realistically survive.”
By a stroke of fortune, it was just about then that the idea of house floats — to help New Orleanians compensate for the lack of parades — came into being.
Coco, who has a background in marketing and online sales, jumped into action. She posted Stronghold Studios’ services on the Krewe of House Floats resources page, and they started getting calls.
“We did three house float jobs,” says Coco, “and then things really exploded once others saw our work.”
They brought back their seasonal artists and builders, and even then they realized they were in over their heads. Now they are getting out-of-work artists contacting them for work. And they are glad of it.
Stronghold Studios offered design, build, delivery and installation services for house floats. But with the increased volume of business, they now offer those services only for complete house float fronts that they are fabricating.
Stronghold Studios has come up with easy ways for people to install their own elements, such as pre-drilled holes and zip ties to attach decorations to houses.
And what are their most popular components? Without hesitation, Coco declared “our crowd silhouettes that we call ‘Revelers’ but a lot of people are calling them ‘Throw Me Somethin’ Mister!’ decorations.”
And second to that are customers’ own ideas that Stronghold Studios turns into reality. Working around elements such as drainpipes, landscaping and banisters, they improvise to create the look of a float.
And their business now is contactless. People can order from the website or email design ideas back and forth. The studio uses a photograph of the customer’s house to get started.
This is not the first time Stronghold has been forced to adapt in the face of hardship. As the backstory on the company’s website states: “Even during the difficult times, like post-Hurricane Katrina, where we survived by shifting gears and renovating houses, our diverse skillsets and passion for our work has kept us strong.”