Work From Home
Coat of Arms brings Hollywood-quality video production to Helvetia.
Photos Courtesy of Coat of Arms
The website for the little village of Helvetia, nestled in the mountains of Randolph County, lists a handful of businesses: the famed Hutte restaurant, an inn or two, a fly-fishing guide, and a few farmers who sell fresh honey and maple syrup. Oh, and now there’s that little company that does projects for Google and Jaguar.
Coat of Arms, run by the husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Lacocque and Clara Lehmann, does post-production video for some of the nation’s biggest corporations and famous film directors and musicians. They’re the people who did the animation on the introduction video for the new Google Maps. They do everything from editing and sound design on music videos—for bands like Paramore and Panic! at the Disco—to visual effects and illustrations on commercials for established brands like Kenmore and Marriott.
Since the couple has a branch in Chicago, it might seem strange to find them spending much of their time working out of a home office in a tiny Swiss village in Appalachia. “I think people are very excited and impressed that we are operating from a rural community here in the mountains,” says Lehmann, who grew up in Helvetia and graduated in a class of four from the Pickens School. “I think it makes us stand apart from the crowd. We aren’t just another studio in downtown Chicago fighting tooth and nail for every project. We can be a little picky.”
Lehmann and Lacocque, both 33, met at the small liberal arts-centered Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduation, they settled in Lacocque’s hometown of Chicago to pursue careers in psychology, for him, and sociology, for her. But one of Lacocque’s hobbies was rapidly turning into something more.
He and a buddy had started a film club in junior high, and they kept up their friendship and evolved their video production skills into adulthood. “It was always an interest, but I always thought there’s no way I could ever make a living doing this,” Lacocque says. He gave it a go anyway, starting Smiling Toad Productions with his friend, doing mostly wedding videography to make money and pursuing artistic endeavors—making short films and documentaries—on the side.
Lacocque also would occasionally take gigs as a production assistant on the sets of TV shows, commercials, and music videos. He got Lehmann involved whenever there was a need for an extra on set or whenever her writing and editing skills came in handy. “Just like with anything, as you do good work, they see you show up on time, deal with stress well, they give your name around and I started to get more work,” Lacocque says.
He eventually started freelancing as a production assistant and followed Lehmann, briefly, back to West Virginia while she attended law school—one semester was enough for her. She was bouncing around from nonprofit work and healthcare administration to law and journalism, trying to find a career that fit. “I didn’t love any of them,” she says.
She did love the writing, editing, and creative work involved in helping Lacocque on his jobs, but she was also trying to be realistic. “I always thought I would love to do it, but I never thought it would be possible,” she says. “I always thought I would have to have a different career to make sure we had a stable income.”
But Lacocque saw potential in their partnership. “I think he knew I was an asset because our skill sets are so different,” Lehmann says. “I’m good at writing. He has all these amazing technical skills. We can do different things.”
They decided to forge ahead with their own company in Chicago in 2010. Coat of Arms, whose name reflects the owners’ interests in cultural identity and heritage, quickly established a high-profile client base. Working with director Michael Thelin, they edited music videos for top acts from James Blunt and Janelle Monáe to Lupe Fiasco and Wiz Khalifa. They made information videos for corporate clients. Lacocque traveled to Cambodia to film scenes for a documentary Lehmann wrote, A Perfect Soldier, about the former child soldier Aki Ra, who was named a CNN Hero for his work to remove landmines from his native country.
But despite their professional success, for Lehmann, something was still off. “Honestly, West Virginia is just a part of me. I feel lost without it, specifically Helvetia,” she says. “In college, in Minnesota, it was different. You’re young, and I knew I needed to spread my wings and get an education. But after that, I just always felt like I was missing something.
“In West Virginia, you can kind of get away from people sometimes,” she says. “I get anxious in crowds. That was pulling at me to get back. There’s something here you just can’t find anywhere else.”
It wasn’t too difficult to convince Lacocque to consider a Helvetia branch. Showing him how much money they could save living and doing business in West Virginia compared with Chicago pretty much sealed the deal. “We do everything online anyway,” Lehmann says. “We occasionally have face-to-face meetings with clients or a meeting with someone we are working with, but even that isn’t sometimes necessary. Skype is amazing now. So I knew in the back of my head we could make it work.”
For Lacocque, the city boy, the payoff was more than just financial. “In terms of expectation, it is just as rural, quiet, and quaint as I had feared, but I actually love that now,” he says. “I wish I had thought about it differently because it’s been amazing. I feel like our work has really gotten better because we have a place we can go that is distraction-free. What it’s given me as an artist is balance, and that’s only been positive.”
Working out of their home near Lehmann’s family in Helvetia became even more appealing when the couple got a surprise just as they made the move: Lehmann was pregnant with twins. Lucy and Sophia are now two years old. Lehmann and Lacocque like raising their girls to appreciate living in a place where you can see the stars at night, and where you know the names of all your neighbors and people you meet on the street.
They are hoping to use that as a draw for business. The couple recently began excavation work on a site in “downtown” Helvetia, right next to the Hutte Restaurant, that will become their office and a retreat space for clients. They hope to start construction in the spring. “For a director, they like the idea of coming here and having a chance to explore and be creative and be inspired,” Lehmann says. “It would be such a unique experience. Isn’t it nice to hear the crickets and sit by the campfire? I love sharing that with people, and I think it’s a really valuable part of what our state has to offer.”
Right now, in addition to their corporate work—they just finished post-production on a series of videos for WebMD—they are working on a documentary about the Hutte Restaurant and Lehmann’s grandmother, Eleanor Mailloux, who co-owned the restaurant and helped revive much of Helvetia’s Swiss heritage, including the annual Fasnacht festival, often called “the Mardi Gras of West Virginia.”
The documentary is just one of the ways Lacocque and Lehmann are trying to deepen Coat of Arms’ connection to the community. “Right now, maybe about 5 percent of our work is for West Virginia-based clients,” says Lacocque, who still travels to Chicago quite a bit on business. “We would love more. We would love to have more of an impact locally.”
The couple volunteers their services when they can, designing brochures and other materials for community events. And local leaders have reached out to make them feel at home. “I hear all the time it’s nice not just to have another business here but another family here, as well,” Lehmann says. “I feel very lucky we’ve been welcomed back.”