Just across the entrance to Belle Isle, a pleasant breeze blows through the old car-charging station that houses Prop Art Studio, cooling an employee who’s busily making cupcakes. But the wafts don’t carry the expected sweet aroma of cake batter. Instead, the place just smells like Styrofoam.
That’s because Prop Art Studio doesn’t make cupcakes — at least not the confections that you guiltily devour with a cold glass of milk. In fact, they don’t really make anything that is what it appears. That Ford Edge that was perched atop all those billboards last year — well, it wasn’t a real vehicle. It was a lightweight, full-size Styrofoam model made by Prop Art.
The company, founded in 1988 by Mike Stapleton, began by making parade floats in Chicago. Stapleton, a Grosse Pointe Woods resident and College for Creative Studies graduate, runs the design-end of the company, first sketching every project himself. Denise Abrash, of Bloomfield Hills, runs the business side of the enterprise.
Prop Art was recently recognized by the 2009 OBIE awards (advertising’s oldest creation design award) for outdoor billboards it devised for McDonald’s and the Chevrolet Volt. Prop Art constructed a 21-foot egg that sat atop a pole across from Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The egg “cracked” during breakfast hours to reveal a sunny-side-up egg that read “fresh eggs daily.” The shell closed at the end of breakfast.
Another winning creation — also for McDonald’s — hung high above Times Square. The dimensional billboard depicted a huge tap pouring a 20-foot, continuous stream of steaming coffee into a 17-foot tall cup.
Though most of its customers are now national-level corporations, Prop Art is responsible for one of the most recognizable local icons, as well: the Red Wings’ giant mascot octopus, “Al,” which they created for their most dependable clients, the Ilitch family. Their first major project after parade floats was remodeling the windows of the Fox Theatre for its restoration in the late 1980s.
Even though nearly 75 percent of its business, as Abrash estimates, comes from out-of-state clients, the owners recognize the advantages of staying in Detroit.
“Talented artists are a real benefit,” Abrash says, referring to the pool of local craftsmen from which they hire on a project-by-project basis.
At one point, Prop Art did significant business for the Big Three. Abrash says their toughest year came when automakers opted for flat-panel TVs in their Auto Show displays instead of constructions made by Prop Art. Because of new technology and the ad industry’s changing landscape, Prop Art has had to reinvent itself every three or four years.
“We’ll do anything that comes our way,” Abrash says. That includes props and sets for Detroit’s budding film industry, for which they have already completed three prominent pieces.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, in an old building that was once used for charging electric cars.