Editor's note: This is the fifth and final article in a series of profiles of key players in the fast-paced high-tech industry and their connection to Park City and Utah.
WIRED Magazine recently published its 20th Anniversary issue, reflecting on a core group of founders who helped shape the high-tech world we live in today, including John Plunkett and Barbara Kuhr -- the married team of Park City-based designers who, among their many accomplishments, helped found WIRED and served as its creative directors for its first five years.
The pair had discussed leaving New York City in the early 1990s and moving to Montana where Kuhr was from, but they were concerned about being too remote. On a ski trip to Park City with a friend, Plunkett called Kuhr with the announcement that he'd found "Montana with an economy and an airport we can get in and out of." Kuhr added, "The weather here is stunning - like where I grew up without the highs and the lows, the extreme heat and cold."
Plunkett and Kuhr vividly remember the road trip that led them out West to the Park City home they'd purchased to begin the WIRED Magazine and WIRED.com sojourn. "The last thing we did in our studio in New York City was to create the prototype for WIRED," remembers Plunkett. "Then we drove to Park City with our Jeep packed with our belongings, and bought our blue house on Park Avenue that was just a miner's shack at the time."
During those initial years, Plunkett and Kuhr would switch off commuting back and forth weekly to WIRED's San Francisco office.
"It was literally 24/7 for seven years," Plunkett recalls. "Then after all that time with computers, we started doing architecture here in Park City, and what started as an avocation-- preserving historic home exteriors and designing modern interiors -- has slowly become a bigger part of our business."
Plunkett and Kuhr's love for Old Town's historic architectural style led them to expand their real estate holdings to four separate homes adjacent to and behind the Park Avenue home in which they live and work today. "They were built 100 years ago and our job is to be stewards of these houses, stabilizing them for the next century," says Kuhr. "People need modern floor plans and functions going forward, so John and I preserve them from the exterior, but you enter the 21st century when you walk in the door."
In the early days of WIRED, with all of the initial seed money allocated to the magazine, Plunkett and Kuhr helped pay their bills with other design jobs, like for the Sundance Film Festival, a project that aligned nicely with WIRED as Sundance agreed to distribute the magazine during the festival. "That was a natural audience of early adopters for WIRED," Plunkett recalls, "Barbara and I would stand on the corners on Main Street handing out copies of this mystery magazine to people dressed in black walking by."
From the get-go, WIRED had a huge impact in the media and advertising world. "But the business reality is that we were living hand-to-mouth for that first year," remembers Plunkett.
At the time, most high-quality magazines were selling on the newsstand for about $3 a copy, but the reality is that magazines were deeply discounted. "Magazines buy people to sell to advertisers," says Plunkett, a fact that they were not fans of. "Louis referred to it as publishing with contempt." Plunkett recalls. "We wanted to change that because we felt the ideas in our magazine were valuable, so we decided to charge $5 a copy, with no discounts. So the look and feel had to convey more - it needed to feel more like a book you collect and less like a magazine you throw away."
During WIRED's second round of funding, famed publisher S.I. (known as "Si") Newhouse, Chairman of Conde Nast (Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, etc.) purchased 15 percent of their company for $3 million, enabling them to not only continue with their high-quality publication, but also support it with the needed marketing.
In 1994, the reality of WIRED going online hit them by necessity. "We quickly realized that we didn't have a choice - we were in the business of reporting about the future, but the web meant we could get into the business of helping to build the future," says Plunkett. The two helped to create the first commercial website that had original content supported by advertising, HotWired. "Barbara and I had a conversation about what form the advertising could take. We coded a narrow space on the top of the page for corporate sponsorships, and within two weeks our sales team turned that into 'banner ads.'"
Perhaps even more startling in retrospect, albeit less profitable for them in the end, was the innovation of one of the first search engines. "We partnered with these very smart tech guys who had a great algorithm and we had what was, for awhile, the most popular search engine, 'HotBot,' that was gaining usage and hits in the late '90s until these other guys with another algorithm came along called Google, and we kind of wish we'd run into them first," Plunkett laughingly recounts.
Other high profile projects that Plunkett + Kuhr have been involved with include working with the I.M Pei team at the Louvre in Paris, and their longest standing client, Carnegie Hall, for whom the team has been designing one or two exhibits a year in the attached museum for some 22 years.
"Almost everything we do boils down to storytelling one way or another," says Plunkett. "Even architecture, at its essence, is storytelling -- creating an experience, then building a space to create that experience for other people."
One of the biggest issues, expressed by this American design team relates to bandwidth and connectivity, issues they see as important to Park City's high tech future. "The future that's happening so quickly now is entirely built on connectivity and bandwidth. Whichever country, state or ski-town has the most abundant of these, at the lowest price (all the way down to free) will win economically," Plunkett believes.
Bringing the discussion back to Park City, Plunkett adds, "Who comes to ski resorts? The most connected people on the planet. They're going to gravitate to the most connected resort towns with the highest bandwidth. If Park City had state of the art connectivity and bandwidth, it would be the most popular ski resort for more reasons than the great powder."
Kuhr adds, "And we're so much more than a resort town. We're a great residential community and an even greater place to live."
Peter Smaha is a writer who sold his advertising agency in Los Angeles to live and work in Park City as a branding-marketing consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com