Montana State University

Mountains and Minds


Photo by Kelly Gorham

Wired by design October 12, 2012 by Anne Cantrell • Published 10/12/12

MSU graduate Barbara Kuhr was a founding designer of the groundbreaking magazine that transformed the way we look at technology
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In 1984, Barbara Kuhr and her partner, John Plunkett, quit their jobs at New York City design firms to take a sabbatical in Europe.

Kuhr, a Great Falls native who earned a degree from Montana State, and Plunkett enrolled at the Alliance Française to learn French. Then, they rented a car and traveled around the continent for six months. Eventually they settled in Paris.

Some of their colleagues and friends in New York were skeptical about their decision to abandon good jobs for the unknown, but "we were open to new challenges, new ways of doing things," Kuhr said.

Their openness to the unexpected served them well. In Paris the two met another American couple, Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe. Rossetto was the editor of an investment newsletter that Plunkett designed, and they shared a love of magazines.

Rossetto half-jokingly suggested that they begin a magazine together, but the timing wasn't quite right. However, several years later, Rossetto again brought up the idea of a magazine. He believed that computers and new technologies would soon change everyone's lives. He thought there should be a magazine to herald the new digital revolution.

In the early '90s, shortly before the world became connected like never before via the World Wide Web, email and, ultimately, social media, Rossetto's brainchild, Wired magazine, was born.

The magazine pioneered a new understanding of how Internet technology would change the flow of information. It was also widely recognized for its use of fluorescent colors and eye-catching design.

"Wired was by far the most interesting design project I've ever been part of," said Kuhr, who, with Plunkett, was a founding designer. "It was exhilarating."

Kuhr has designed nearly 30 exhibits for the museum at Carnegie Hall.
As Wired predicted, the digital revolution has radically altered the way we work, live and play, including graphic design. Still, Kuhr says technology can't change everything.

"You have to be aware that technology is a tool, but it can't drive the design," she said. "Can you still think clearly? Can you tell a good story with words and pictures? Technology helps you, but the person still has to drive the design."


Big Sky and Frank Lloyd Wright

Even if she is best known for her design of Wired, it doesn't take more than a few minutes with Kuhr, who graduated from MSU in 1978 with a degree in graphic design, to realize that her work defies categorization. In a career that spans more than 30 years and several continents, Kuhr's work ranges from graphics for the Sundance Film Festival to signage for the Louvre to designing exhibits for the museum at Carnegie Hall.

Tall, friendly and gracious, Kuhr was raised in Great Falls, the middle of three children. Her father (both of her parents are Montana State graduates) was an architect, and the family lived in a home he designed. Kuhr's older sister, Peggy, is now dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism.

It was her father's influence that Kuhr, now 58, believes led her to design.

As a small child, Kuhr was drawn to her father's drafting tools, such as pencils, architectural scales and drafting brushes. A big, orange-red box that was stashed underneath her parents' bed provided endless entertainment. It was a Frank Lloyd Wright book, full of loose sheets with drawings of floor plans, elevations and perspective sketches.

"I'd play with (the book) for hours," Kuhr said. "It was only later that I understood how much my father was influenced by Wright, and that the house I grew up in was (my father's) version of (Wright's) Prairie House."

Kuhr began her studies after high school at the University of Montana, but soon decided to transfer to Montana State. Her time at the university left a lasting impression.

"At MSU I found a place that combined the practical aspects of design and building that I'd grown up with and some of the more challenging ideas about design and art," she said.

The most influential teacher Kuhr had at MSU was Jayne Van Alstyne, who taught Kuhr "that there was a bigger world of design out there, and that I needed to leave Montana to be a part of it."

In fact, Kuhr had always known that she would need to leave Montana in order to gain experience. After graduating from MSU, she spent five years in Seattle, working in graphic design and interior space planning. Wanting to learn more, Kuhr took her portfolio to New York, where she worked first for Carbone Smolan Design and then with the legendary designers Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar.

In New York, Kuhr also met Plunkett. In 1984, just a few months after meeting, they quit their jobs and left for Europe.


Wired

Kuhr and Plunkett often found themselves critiquing magazines with Rossetto while living in Paris.

"We'd go to the newsstand and pick up every American '80s magazine in the rack," Kuhr said. "We'd take them back to our apartment and pore over them, wishing there was a magazine like Life or Esquire or Rolling Stone, magazines that really profoundly changed the culture of their time."

Kuhr and Plunkett left Paris in 1985 and completed a nine-month sailing trip with friends. After the trip, Plunkett and Kuhr settled in Los Angeles. But, in 1986, they were lured back to Paris to serve as co-designers of a signage project at the Louvre. They returned to New York City in 1987, while Rossetto and Metcalfe worked in Amsterdam.

Meanwhile, "Louis started talking about the need for a magazine that would talk about our future in technology and how technology would affect all of our futures," Kuhr said. "He saw the need for a magazine to explain the coming technological revolution, and how technology was going to change our lives--politics, economics, culture, everything."

So, in 1991 the group created a prototype of Wired in Plunkett and Kuhr's New York studio. After securing funding, they began publishing it in 1993 from a loft in San Francisco--then the hotbed for all things technology.

"When we first started, there was little awareness of how technology was about to reshape our lives," Kuhr said. "The magazine became the place to explore these ideas and to showcase the people who were creating the future.

"Wired became the vanguard for this discussion about the future, and John and I had to figure out how to visually symbolize it."

By then the two had left New York for the mountain town of Park City, Utah. The couple was looking for a place where they could be away from the bustle of big cities, but still be connected. (Montana was another possibility, but with smaller airports and FedEx unable to guarantee overnight delivery, it was too isolated for them at the time.)

During Wired's early days, Kuhr and Plunkett commuted once a week to San Francisco but did most of their design work from Utah.

"We really did live a 24/7 lifestyle for the first several years of Wired, especially after the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1994," Kuhr said.

In addition to the popular print edition of the magazine, the company later created HotBot, an early search engine, and some of the first content-based websites, such as HotWired, Wired News and Netizen.

Rossetto calls Kuhr's contributions at Wired invaluable, both for her creative talents and managerial skills. In addition to her design work, Kuhr was one of five senior managers running HotWired, as well as a mentor to dozens of people on its creative team.

"We could never have built Wired without Barb," said the magazine's former publisher.

"Barbara's work was a wondrously contradictory combination of rigorous and playful, passionate and rational, thoughtful and spontaneous, innovative yet grounded--and always just unerringly right," he said. "No matter what she touched, you just knew she would come up with the right solution, the right look, attitude, positioning."

But if websites like HotWired (which was the first commercial Web magazine when it launched in 1994) were inventing Web media, the company's pioneering nature was part of its challenge.

"With the magazine, we were announcing the future, but with the websites, we were inventing it," Kuhr said. "That's where it got very difficult for many companies--not knowing what would work and needing to get lots of people involved."

"There were no rules, so we were trying to see what would stick," Plunkett said. "And the Web steamrollered us as much as anybody else. It was exhilarating but also exhausting."

The company quickly grew from four people dreaming about a magazine, to 12 putting out the first issue, to 50 by the end of the first year and 300 by year three. Magazine subscriptions numbered about 110,000 in 1994 and climbed to more than 400,000 by 1998.

According to New York Times media critic David Carr, the magazine quickly became well-known among a select and diverse group.

"At MSU I found a place that combined the practical aspects of design and building that I'd grown up with and some of the more challenging ideas about design and art."
-- Barbara Kuhr
"At its height in the mid-90s, Wired could be found in the lobbies of venture capitalists, on the light tables of designers, underneath the coffee cups of computer geeks and in the middle of the only conversation that seemed to matter," Carr wrote in a 2003 New York Times book review. "It was, briefly, the coolest magazine on the planet."

However, the growth that came with the company's success wasn't all positive, Plunkett said.

"The company's ambitions grew too large," he said. "Our mission initially was to form this (print) magazine, but it morphed to websites, integrated media..."

In 1996, over Plunkett and Kuhr's objections, their partners tried to take the company public but later canceled those plans over concerns that the offering was undersubscribed. Scrambling for funds, the company turned to private investors, who sold the magazine to Condé Nast in 1998 and Wired Digital to a Boston company, Lycos. Kuhr and Plunkett left the company after the sales.


Design in the future

After leaving Wired, Kuhr has tackled other design projects on a freelance basis, and she and Plunkett continue to design one or two exhibits per year for the museum at Carnegie Hall.

She also devotes much of her time to architecture in Park City. There, in a historic downtown neighborhood, Kuhr and Plunkett have renovated a group of old miners' shacks. Kuhr has thrown herself into the project over the past decade, studying how to make small spaces feel bigger, working with an architect for engineering and overseeing construction.

Kuhr now refers to each house by the color of its paint: the red house is the design studio that she and Plunkett share. They live in the blue one. The yellow house, which is the first that the couple renovated, now belongs to good friends. The green house is their fourth project. Once it's completed, a local family intends to buy it.

Scattered throughout the studio in the red house is evidence of Kuhr's career. Books about color, architecture and small spaces. File folders full of notes and old clippings, stacked next to Apple computers with enormous screens. A photo of Sissieretta Jones, the first black woman to perform at Carnegie Hall and the subject of one of the exhibits Kuhr and Plunkett designed there.

If it is an understated studio--sketches of mountains Kuhr climbed with her father in Glacier Park are taped to the walls--the person reflected in it is equally unassuming.

"As a collaborator, she...had a way of always drawing more out of you than you thought you had, and delivering more than you had imagined," Rossetto said. "Yet, for all of her large accomplishments, she was never obsessed with demanding credit, perhaps to a fault. There were a lot of big egos at Wired. Barbara wasn't one of them. She's a big talent, and a good friend."

Gino Francesconi, director of archives and the museum at Carnegie Hall, has curated nearly 30 exhibits for which Kuhr was the designer. He called the consistently high quality of her work impressive.

"Her attention to detail is extraordinary," Francesconi said. "She makes it all look easy, but truth be told, it's painstaking to make an exhibit look simple and elegant."

Kuhr and Plunkett both predict that design and publishing will continue to rapidly evolve.

"Phones and iPads tend to place experience in the present tense," Plunkett said. "There is little emphasis on the past or the future, and it's difficult to find any context about why things are happening."

Kuhr concurred.

"These days, being able to add context to content and not get overwhelmed by all the technological bells and whistles makes our job as designers even more important," she said. "It's still all about boiling the story down to its essence."

She doesn't think printed publications will go away, but predicts most publications, particularly time-sensitive ones, will be digital, not print-based, and many will serve more vertical markets with narrower interests.

"A printed publication will become more of a show piece," Kuhr said. "It will be worth more and kept longer--something between a good magazine and great coffee table book, but it will probably be able to talk as well."