When Edwin Schlossberg and Caroline Kennedy were married in 1986, the Hyannis Port celebration was compared to a royal wedding, complete with entertainment after dinner. Carly Simon sang a few songs; then George Plimpton narrated a fireworks display which was his gift to the couple. Not surprisingly, the media was obsessed with the groom: Who was this man marrying America's First Daughter? But Schlossberg resolutely remained a mystery, refusing to grant interviews. And though he was described as a specialist in interactive media, no one actually understood his chosen profession. So when a burst of fireworks fizzled into a fog bank, Plimpton couldn't resist. "These fireworks," he quipped, "represent what Ed Schlossberg does."
Fifteen years later, Schlossberg is sitting in the conference room of his interactive-media firm in an old cast-iron building in the Flatiron district. At 55, he's grayer, but he's still a strapping six foot two, a good-looking man with a calm, assured, slightly sardonic detachment.
"My kids tell me it is so annoying that all the other kids' fathers are investment bankers," he says, referring to Rose, Tatiana, and Jack Schlossberg, uptown kids with a downtown dad who dresses in black jeans and black sweaters and does something with computers. "Not that anyone knows what an investment banker does."
If Schlossberg is sensitive about the public perception of his work life, he does not let on, perhaps because he has become accustomed to a great deal of unwanted attention. He's "fiercely protective of Caroline," according to one observer, and never takes his children to public events, to shield them from the photographers who hounded his wife in her youth. I'd been informed that he would not want to talk about his family. But families, it turns out, are what his biggest project to date is about.
Last week, the nature of Schlossberg's work became much clearer, even to Plimpton, who still thinks what he does is "very cerebral, complicated, and conceptual." Five years in the making, the American Family Immigration History Center on Ellis Island is an Edwin Schlossberg Incorporated-designed interactive-media display consisting of 41 computer stations and a Website. Linked to an extensive database of more than 17 million people who passed through the island from 1892 to 1924, the Website will allow anyone who suspects he was descended from an Ellis Island immigrant -- approximately 40 percent of all Americans -- to find out for sure. None of the data would be available were it not for the Mormon volunteers who, motivated by their religion's interest in genealogy, laboriously transcribed the ship's handwritten manifests from microfilm.
"I never set out to be a designer," Schlossberg explains. "What I was doing was thinking. Suddenly people began to pay for my thoughts."
Although to most people he's still the mysterious husband of Caroline Kennedy, Schlossberg has designed innovative media installations for many leading institutions, including Sony Wonder in the Sony building on Madison Avenue; the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan; and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C., which opened in March. "Because of its potential audience," notes Ralph Appelbaum, a museum designer with offices in SoHo and London who is often a competitor of Schlossberg's, "the Ellis Island project is going to raise his visibility."
Growing up in the years immediately after World War II on the Upper West Side, Schlossberg was surrounded by a large extended family of Russian Jews. All four of his great-grandparents were Ellis Island immigrants who were born within 50 miles of one another in the vicinity of Poltava, Russia, a fact that had to sustain young Ed's curiosity.
"When I would ask my grandparents about Russia, they didn't want to talk," Schlossberg says. "One of the things about immigration under duress is that no one wants to tell you about it."
Schlossberg's private office looks out across Sixth Avenue to the stolid cast-iron buildings that his grandparents probably went to when the structures were gleaming new department stores, at the turn of the century. For a person who has assiduously avoided all contact with the media, he seems remarkably at ease talking about his life. His grandfather built a small real-estate empire, then lost it all in the Depression. His father, Alfred Schlossberg, was a well-to-do textile designer and manufacturer.
One of those Upper West Side boys who spent all their free time going between painting lessons, classes in science at the Museum of Natural History, and Hebrew school, Schlossberg attended P.S. 166 and the Birch Wathen School. In 1967, he received a B.A. from Columbia College; four years later, a Ph.D. in science and literature from Columbia University. His thesis was an imaginary conversation between Albert Einstein and Samuel Beckett -- hardly a step to an assured academic job. Instead, he was, as he puts it, "invited into the process" of making art in New York.
Befriended by John Cage, who taught music composition at Columbia in those days, Schlossberg rode the subway downtown and rented an apartment on 13th Street. He spent time with artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, who were then living in the same loft building near Peck Slip. Rauschenberg and Johns were combining language and art and science in their early artwork in a way that appealed to Schlossberg. And he began to create what was known as "concrete poetry." In his case, the compositions consisted of fragments of letters on Plexiglas panels that could be manipulated to reveal phrases. Influenced by Asian art, he also stenciled finely wrought poetry onto rice-paper scrolls connected by bamboo rods.
At the same time as he was pursuing a career as an artist, Schlossberg went to work for R. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary who invented the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion car, which looks like a spaceship on wheels, and who inspired the Whole Earth Catalog.
"I learned a lot from Bucky," Schlossberg says. "Both negative and positive. He was fantastic at writing menus. But he wasn't interested in cooking dinner."
"I just thought he has had this life of ideas: fantastic, amazing, poetic, beautiful ideas. Then he moves on," Schlossberg says. "It is often harder to slog through it and make sure the thing gets done."
While at Columbia, Schlossberg had published a magazine called Good News that contained only inspirational essays written by Fuller and others. The magazine led to other design jobs. "I never set out to be a designer," Schlossberg explains, "Like Bucky, what I really was doing was thinking. Suddenly people began to pay me for my thoughts."
A chance introduction to the director of the Brooklyn Children's Museum at a White House conference on children and youth led him in 1971 to a staff position at the museum. Just as Schlossberg had sought out Johns and Rauschenberg when he wanted to learn how to make art, he went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to talk to Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert, groundbreaking human-behavioralists who pioneered artificial intelligence, when he wanted to learn how to create an interactive experience for children. The success of the Children's Museum led Schlossberg to the Massachusetts Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to design an interactive display for a visitors' center outside Farmingdale, Massachusetts.