A few years ago, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt sat in a New York City bar and relaxed with some new friends who had been co-judges at a design competition. One of the judges had enjoyed a few and decided to offer her perspective on Kuhlmann-Leavitt's standing in American design. "You know Deanna," she said, "I think you are the most underrated designer in America."
The comment was accurate: a player on the national design scene for more than a decade, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt had a good reputation but no broad name recognition outside her own circle of friends and clients. This was due to a variety of reasons, not the least of which being her own reluctance to toot her own horn—even over drinks in a bar with friends.
The Kuhlmann Leavitt, Inc. (KLI) story, then, is not so much about the sophistication and quality of the work (that has long been established), but about why a woman who has filled annuals and award shelves for many years has been so invisible to the industry. And it is a story about how loyalty, dedication, patience and kindness can be, in time, rewarded, even in today's me-first, kiss-my-ass world.
Before revisiting the past any further, a look at KLI today shows us where this is heading. The firm is situated in the business district of Clayton, Missouri, the seat of St. Louis County. It is a bustling place with ample street life, fine restaurants and upscale chains side-by-side locally-owned gown shops, tailors, florists and gift shops. It has a scale, tidiness and charm that reminds you of the place where Ward Cleaver went everyday after corn flakes, white toast and a quick peck from June.
The KLI office is a tasteful, understated affair, a story above street-level. The 2,500-square-foot studio is open plan, filled with natural light, dressed in quiet gray, white and black hues. Soft screens divide space. On this morning, staff members sit behind perfectly matching titanium Macs, tap-tapping away, dressed in coordinated tones of gray and black slacks and sweaters. This is not a place where you'll hear The Flaming Lips or White Stripes peeling the paint off the wall, nor a place where you might see giant gumball machines, tapped kegs, skateboards, free-running ferrets or hemp shirts. Here, you'll discover great things getting done for companies such as CitiGroup Private Bank, Formica Corporation, Smart Papers, Ameristar Casinos, Eddie Bauer, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis and many others. Here you'll find clients and staff who like to stay put.
THE WHOLE BALL OF WAX
Deanna Kuhlmann grew up in St. Louis among a family of six with deep Midwestern roots. The Kuhlmanns prized hard work and education: they were of the kind who did it themselves but expected to help those who could not. After finishing night school while Deanna was still a child, her father took an engineering degree and co-founded an engineering and architectural firm that specialized in suburban commercial space. Over the years, through hard work and client satisfaction, the firm grew very successful. Early on, Deanna helped around the office, running the blueprint machine, cleaning the office, filing, whatever she could do to make herself useful and earn pocket money. There, she also learned how a business was run, an education she'd apply much later.
After beginning college at Washington University in St. Louis, Deanna decided she wanted to pursue her interest in design. It was in high school where she first exhibited the potential for the design business. Mrs. (Lauren) Davis, now retired but a legend among many working designers and artists who went to Parkway Central High School in St. Louis, was Kuhlmann's art teacher for three years. She knew back then that Kuhlmann had the ability to become a graphic artist. "I knew talent when I saw it," she explains in a rapid-fire cadence that suggests a skilled and inexhaustible advocate. "And Deanna had it; the flair, the skills, the confidence, the charm, the whole ball of wax. Every year, it seemed, I had to save at least one talented kid among my students from the horror of running the family dry cleaning business. Deanna was that kind of kid. Not only was she a talented artist, but you could tell she had a sound business head, too."
Having already been accepted at Rhode Island School of Design, Deanna instead opted for Art Center, at Mrs. Davis's suggestion. She entered the school in 1987, leaving behind a supportive but skeptical father, who kept sending law and architecture school brochures just in case she changed her mind. "I think he only quit after I moved back to St. Louis," says Kuhlmann with a smile. At Art Center, Kuhlmann shined bright, even amidst the glossy talent that went there. Says illustrator Joel Nakamura, one instructor then, "Even as a student, Deanna was radiant, like a light in a dark room that attracts people to it. She had an easy confidence, but was never cocky; people wanted to be around her. And her charisma was evenly matched by great work and an ability to do virtually anything asked."
To support herself in school, Deanna took part-time work hand-lettering signs for Jurgensen's, a local upscale grocer. What she needed was experience in a real design firm. Hearing of an internship program with Morava & Oliver Design Office in Santa Monica, she applied. After reviewing her work, Doug Oliver offered her a paid internship. Naïve, precocious, fearful, or all of the above, 21-year-old Deanna Kuhlmann told the design star Doug Oliver that she'd "think it over," a story he told with amusement and relish for years.
The "little girl" who made Oliver wait ended up working for him for fourteen years at the firm producing award-winning, attention-grabbing design and, for her age, an amazing comfort level with clients and vendors. The relationship brought great benefit to mentor and protégé, both financially and professionally. "Simply put, I would not be here today without the opportunities Doug gave me when I was so young," she says. As she had at Art Center, Kuhlmann stood out in the design-rich world of Los Angeles. Photographer and friend Everard Williams, Jr. was a classmate of Kuhlmann's at Art Center whose career benefited early when Kuhlmann hired him for a Gilbert Papers promotion. Williams explains: "When the Gilbert piece came along, I was doing these photos of people cutting bizarre designs into their hair. I showed them to Deanna and we brainstormed on how to use that effect in other ways. I tried projecting images onto heads and other body parts, then did a test, and, boom! Deanna loved what was happening. No one was doing that projection stuff then. No one. It was way out there-but she championed it and convinced the client to do it-and she was only 24. She's done that her whole career."
After nine years working with Oliver in California, Kuhlmann felt the lure of home or more accurately, the lure of Rob Leavitt, her high-school sweetheart and long-distance significant other for the nine years she had been in L.A. Shrewdly, Oliver realized Kuhlmann needed to go home and so facilitated the transition by asking her to open an office for him in St. Louis where he could better service his client Mead Paper of Dayton, Ohio. Oliver's decision was a win-win-win for everyone concerned. In 1995, Douglas Oliver Design Office opened a St. Louis location, with Deanna Kuhlmann at its helm. In 1996, Kuhlmann married Rob Leavitt. By 1997, the firm changed its name to Oliver Kuhlmann.
Beginning with Mead as its principal client, Kuhlmann-Leavitt slowly grew the business. By 1998, Mead remained the largest client, but no longer occupied the majority of the St. Louis office revenue. The office was very profitable. In 1999, Deanna met Deborah Beckett, the director of graphics at HOK Architects's St. Louis office. After eighteen years at HOK, Beckett was ready for a change, but did not want the responsibility of operating her own design firm. "From the beginning of our relationship," explains Kuhlmann, "Deborah was a constant source of affirmation and reinforcement; she had, in essence, the form, the materials and the experience I needed to help push me and my firm to a new level." For Beckett, Deanna offered a sophisticated and successful design firm to park her talents. For Deanna, Beckett offered a new design discipline with a wide list of contacts to build upon. But Beckett offered her still more: she helped Deanna realize that her untapped reservoirs of talent even exceeded the vast evidence of potential she had already demonstrated.
Deanna ended her long business relationship with Doug Oliver in June of 2001. With her staff and clients behind her, she signed a lease on a space above a sub shop a quarter-mile from her former office. While it was not a great time to launch a new business, as the economy was rapidly heading south, Deanna Kuhlmann-Leavitt's fortunes have been heading up ever since. Business is thriving and they've opened up a second office in Chicago. Husband Rob Leavitt assumes all responsibilities for managing the firm's assets and investments while splitting his time at home, two miles away, managing the family's newest and biggest asset: two-year-old Robby.
That it took so much time to get to this place is of little concern to Deanna. At 37, she looks back on the past without regret or nostalgia. "I made my move when it was appropriate for me. The biggest difference between me then and now is that I am more decisive, efficient and prepared to trust those around me. Their success is my success; I must make them feel valued and independent or we all lose."
"They" are employees such as Monica King Goldsbury, a print designer transformed by 3-D design under the tutelage of Deborah Beckett. And Mimi Dorsey, new business associate, office manager and mother of newborn twins or Megan Boyer, who job-shares with Mimi so that she can care for those new twins. Also recent hires like Tom Twellman, fresh out of design school, six months on the job. And Emily Pratzel, design student at Washington University—former student of Parkway Central's Mrs. Davis—who has been a paid intern at KLI for almost two years.
As for the insightful Mrs. Davis, her assessment of Deanna's rise to prominence is an appropriate close: "I've often said," she says again, "No one ever got rich doing something they hated. There is nothing, nothing, lost by allowing a youngster to pursue their dream—at least until they turn 40, by which time they should have done something with their talent or gotten a paying job." Deanna Kuhlmann was a talented young girl who realized her dream of becoming a successful design professional.
At Kuhlmann Leavitt, Inc., life is rich because they are doing what they love. Is there a better measure of success than that? ca