MuseArts – Celebrating 20 Years of Web Design

Rewind the clock a bit to 1997. Netscape just announced that their browser will be given away for free. Microsoft buys Hotmail. Macromedia introduced Dreamweaver. Google hadn’t bought any office space yet.

And over in Somerville, MA, Lise and Chris filed the paperwork to start a company called MuseArts.

Yes, today just happens to be the 20th anniversary of our web and digital design company, MuseArts. We’ve helped design and launch hundreds of web projects in that period of time.

Lise and I met at the Computer Museum in Boston in the exhibits department. When the museum moved to California, we were left with decisions to make about how to earn a living.

Designing properties for the internet fit both of our skill sets, and we did think of it as “property” back then. It might be expensive for a museum to add a new gallery space, but it would be easy to add an infinite number of galleries if the museum had a web site. Physical size and location of an entity no longer mattered the way it did before.

We spent a fair amount of time trying to find a name for the company, and narrowing down the list. Ultimately, a check of the internet to make sure no one else had claimed it led us to christen ourselves MuseArts. Muse, for museums and muses, and Arts for creativity and design.

We originally thought that museums, exhibits, and education would be our market, but these sectors were slow to adapt to the internet. By necessity, we started designing web sites, logos, databases, and e-commerce packages for businesses instead. Some of those first clients sold books, some sold real estate. Other early projects were more about entertaining and amusing – animation for interactive music videos, a children’s radio program, or a band page.

We worked out of the apartment. At the very beginning we didn’t even have desks, just our computers on coffee tables and crates. (One of our first and best investments were high-quality chairs. The thought was that if we were going to be in them forever, they should be good. Wise.)

In addition to working for others to build them what they want, we wanted MuseArts to build up a library of our own work. We used any lulls or downtime to experiment and play, and to design our own web sites and experiences.

The first of these was something called Castle Arcana. Here we explored the idea of space and property by building a gothic mansion for visitors to explore. With over 150 hand-drawn, Gorey-esque rooms to explore, we were able to test out technologies (image maps! rollovers! animated GIFs!).

The images filled screens at 432 x 288 at 72dpi – making them huge, modem-crushing files of about 37k, which is now smaller than most modern email messages.

Over the years, we’ve happily taken on all sorts of challenges. We’ve done interactive 3-D animation for a major Florida theme park, educational interactives for a major publishing house, custom database designs, shopping carts and e-commerce, blogs, digital advertising, logos, animated holiday cards for an O-ring manufacturer, and more.

Some of our clients are Fortune 500. We work with colleges, non-profits, restaurants, retail outlets, real estate agents, authors, and so on. We’ve worked with video producers to create animated titles and segments for productions.

And we kept up our goal of doing projects for ourselves. MuseArts won awards for our Guinea Pig Theater cartoons in 2000. We started an indie music site called in 2001. And in 2003, we decided to try an experiment to see if local news could come from the bottom up, rather than the top down by creating

When we created iBrattleboro, there was no Facebook. No YouTube, Flickr, Yelp, or Gmail. No Twitter. No Firefox, Spotify, or Goodreads. Less than 60% of the U.S. was connected to the internet, and around here, most people used dial-up modems. The iPhone was years away.

We were first in town to put images and videos on a local news site. We did a fair amount of speaking and presentation about the idea of citizen-news to media conferences around that time, and watched as the gatekeepers started “allowing” readers to contribute.

iBrattleboro keeps us busy every day of the year, and is how many people know us, but we continue to be MuseArts first and foremost. Our current class of clients includes real estate agents, a hospital, a variety of online and brick & mortar retailers selling everything from food to yarn to pet toys, non-profits, a college, a church, and others.

We’re also proceeding with more work for ourselves. Most recently, we launched The Brattleboro Shop this year with an amazing collection of Brattleboro souvenirs, goodies, and gift items. We have more animation in the works, a few book projects, and some thoughts about a possible think tank of sorts.

20 years seems like a long time ago, but the work we do is very similar. Our tools have improved, computers and connections have gotten faster, and Lise and I each have two decades of experience we didn’t have when we started.

There are times we wonder if we are in the right business. It bothers us that the internet has become a place that enforces conformity, and that the government and large corporations track our every move. We still think we could all do better.

It was a bit scary to start off on our own. We didn’t know where it would lead, or if we’d be successful. We watched as well-funded internet start-ups played ping pong in their offices (and then as they went out of business). We did have a hunch that if we did our best and stayed focused, we’d go somewhere.

It hasn’t made us rich, but it keeps us quite happy. It’s always refreshing to start a new project with someone, learn about their business or organization, and find ways to use what we know to help them. We’ve met a lot of interesting people of all ages and backgrounds and have learned about a wide range of topics.

We’ve also enjoyed become the long-term web team for some organizations. Sticking with a project for years allows us to become intimately familiar with products or programs, and we can offer advice or services based on that knowledge and experience.

It’s also been fun to evolve as a team. Lise knows programming, databases, e-commerce, servers, security, and so on. I know about images, illustrations, AV, logos, and animation, and PR/advertising. We both are good at project management, planning, and debugging. Together we can do just about anything.

Running one’s own business is not easy. There are days you will wonder if you’ll ever get any work at all, or if a client will pay their bill on time. It can be stressful. Believing in yourself is essential. Doing your best is crucial. Laughing at yourself can help.

Just about 20 years ago, we mistyped our business name one day in the office. MuseArts became MuseRats. It made us laugh, and ever since, we’ve applauded the little, unseen MuseRats that must come in while we sleep to get things done.

Thanks to the MuseRats, and also to everyone we’ve ever had a chance to work with on this journey thus far.

And if you need some help with a web project, get in touch. We’re currently scheduling our next 20 years.

Comments | 5

  • Happy Anniversary! I enjoyed

    Happy Anniversary! I enjoyed reading the history of you and Lise and your collective genius. There are many, many people who are quite happy that you landed in Brattleboro and decided to start this crazy kind of online citizen journalism thing… 🙂 Here’s to 20 more glorious years!

  • Congratulations

    Here’s hoping you keep it up for many more successful and interesting years!

  • Twenty Years of Web Sites

    I am almost stunned to realize that we just passed the twenty year mark. It seems like such a long time… I posted roughly the following to commemorate the occasion on our MuseArts site blog:

    Today I was alerted to the fact that MuseArts, the web company Chris and I founded and still operate, is twenty years old. In fact it was a day much like today, warm and hazy, when the two of us trudged off to Somerville City Hall (which was way across town) to file our paperwork. It was a gesture of great optimism lightly dusted with insanity, but it was also one of those rare moments of liberation. We were out on our own, setting off into the sea of self-employment, not a care in the world, blue sky as far as the eye could see…

    Of course, that wasn’t exactly how it turned out. In fact, at times it was what we would today call challenging. But in the years since we started our own business, we’ve learned that no matter what it looks like, you have to keep on. It’s encouraging to note that we’ve successfully ridden the waves of this economy for two whole decades, and only gotten swamped once or twice. Fortunately, we’re good at bailing.

    We’ve learned so much in our twenty years as MuseArts that it could not possibly be enumerated. Let’s just say things have changed a lot since the days of table-based HTML and Javascript. And yet, a lot of the same rules apply — create easy to use, engaging, helpful web sites that solve problems for both the owner and the user and you will not go too far wrong. As for the business side, we’ve learned a bit more about our world from each of the many businesses and organizations we do work for.

    Would we do it again? You bet. Would we do it differently? Sure, but even then, I’m sure we would have had some tough times here and there. No matter what you do, there will always be larger forces at work such as wars, terrorist attacks, economic upheaval, and other forms of mayhem that can throw you some stunning curveballs. Life, as they say, is what happens while you make other plans.

    For our next twenty years, we hope to complete more and better projects, including some we’ve been kicking around for many years and a few more we haven’t come up with yet. We want to stay useful and help people out. And above all, we want to enjoy ourselves in what we do, because without joy, why do it? Surely not for the big salary and executive benefits!

    Thanks to all our clients through the years who’ve trusted us to build their web sites and, in some cases, bail them out of woeful situations. We are grateful to you all and look forward to many more years on the wild and wacky world wide web.

  • Be proud

    As someone who has worked with Lise and Chris professionally, personally and now “politicianally” (haha), I’d like to extend my congratulations and my wishes for you to indeed grace Brattleboro and the world with another 20 years of MuseArts!
    Be proud of your hard work, and what you’ve built over the years – your community is grateful to you both.

    -Tim Wessel

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