The Family Man

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.

With his career gaining momentum, Schlossberg used money he had made writing books on computer games to finance a design company. “My father worried that I would starve pursuing the poet’s life,” Schlossberg recalls. In 1977, ESI started with a staff of 2; today it employs 50.

A snowstorm threatens to dump two feet of snow on New York City on the day of the opening of Schlossberg’s retrospective at the National Arts Club. But by six in the evening, the threat has diminished. It’s the first time works from his 30-year career have been brought together in one place. Schlossberg stands near the entrance to the gallery, looking every inch the Artist in a tailored black leather jacket that recalls Vienna in the thirties.

“It’s nice seeing this early work again,” says Caroline, who has arrived late dressed in a black pantsuit, pointing to a Plexiglas art piece created in the late seventies. She has moved away from Schlossberg and is surrounded by a few friends. For someone allergic to talking to the press, Caroline assumes her role as wife of a media-worthy personality with a sporting detachment. But Andrew Cuomo, who is married to Caroline’s cousin Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, quickly steps in to ask where the children are.

“You have to show them the Tiffany-glass ceiling in the other room,” Cuomo advises. She says she’ll bring them into the gallery when it is quieter.

“Ed is a unique creative genius,” says Larry Bellante, project director of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which developed and funded the history center. “He is a bit of an artist and a bit of a philosopher. He is able to describe and work with people, stimulating them into being as creative as possible and also forcing them to follow along with what his ultimate vision for the project is. He says, ‘This is what I want it to be,’ and his staff steps in and makes it possible. I’ve never known anyone better at this, and I’ve worked with a lot of designers.”

The Ellis Island project is not only his most visible project but also his most personal. He grows visibly excited as he describes how he felt when he located on the center’s database the ship’s manifest for Abraham Hirsch, a grandfather who arrived in New York Harbor in 1903. “It was an awesome experience to see that name pop up on the screen,” he says. “My whole life began on Ellis Island.

“I knew that we didn’t want to turn the center into a roller-coaster ride,” Schlossberg goes on, recalling how it felt to walk through the Immigration Museum. “When you are there, the feeling is reverential, knowing the struggles that these people went through. The challenge for us was to create something that didn’t detract from that quality.

“We call it a celebration of the American family,” Schlossberg says about the Ellis Island center. “The idea was that this would be a place for Americans from all places. We created a whole set of different experiences for people to re-up their citizenship and explore the ethnic diversity that they were part of.

“Like an official family-reunion place,” Schlossberg says, voicing his ambition for the project. “We hope that once it is under way, people will want to come out to the island with their families and make a day of it. I’d like to call up my cousins and sister and go out there with them and put together our family tree.”

If his extended family hasn’t made the trip yet, the Schlossbergs – Ed, Caroline, and their kids – have; they took a tour of Ellis Island when Ed first signed on to the project. I suggest that maybe the history center will finally show his kids – and everyone else, for that matter – what he does for a living, but he shrugs.

“There’s a lot in our culture no one thinks anyone actually invented,” Ed says of his children’s understanding of technology. “They look at a computer screen and do not understand someone actually spent a great deal of time trying to organize all of the information that they are viewing.”

The Family Man