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Edwin Schlossberg reflects on four decades at his firm, ESI Design, where he has worked on a lifetime of amazing projects for clients such as the Ellis Island American Family Immigration History Center, the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, Reuters, NASA, the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, and many others.

For a time, Edwin Schlossberg was a bit of a riddle.

In a country where people often treat 15 minutes of fame as both desire and birthright, Schlossberg didn’t seem to want any part of it. The designer and author married Caroline Kennedy in 1986—and that’s when reporters would go so far as to dress up as waiters in restaurants to try to get a moment with him. Who was this curious man who had married into one of the United States’ most famous families?

He turned down all the interviews. As he tells Debbie Millman in this episode of Design Matters, “At the outset, I didn’t think they were asking questions about anything that was relevant to who I am. I thought, Why would I talk about nonsense?

In the absence of speaking with the media, one begins to be defined by the things others say and write about them.

Insights would often come from Schlossberg’s longtime gallery curator, Ronald Feldman: “He thinks isolation is bad. That’s his life's dedication: to give information so people can use their abilities to think for themselves. … His work is pro-human. You feel this guy’s very much on your side.”

In his diary, Andy Warhol recalls a friend telling him, “Oh, you’ve got to meet this absolutely brilliant boy, Edwin Schlossberg, he’s so brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.”

Of course, with the praise comes counterbalance. At Schlossberg and Kennedy’s wedding, literary titan George Plimpton narrated a fireworks display that he had curated as a gift to the couple. It was reported at the time that after a particularly colorful volley had burst, Plimpton said, “These fireworks represent what Ed Schlossberg does.” But as he later told Spy magazine, the display was “supposed to show that there’s an awful lot of sound and fury to what Ed does, but no one knows what it means.”

All told, Schlossberg’s visibility in the public eye seems to have manifested through a lens that was gradually focusing over the decades. And today, it’s clear. But that was not always the case.

Sending a clear indicator that his would be a different path, Schlossberg got his Ph.D. in the odd bedfellows of literature and science from Columbia. His thesis? A fictional conversation between Samuel Beckett and Einstein, leading one to wonder if conversations like this are perpetually playing out in his head.
After graduating, he worked for the legendary architect Buckminster Fuller, of geodesic dome fame, and later noted, “He was fantastic at writing menus. But he wasn’t interested in cooking dinner.”

Schlossberg was. And thus began an extraordinary hands-on design career that has broken new ground and elevated the sense of place at numerous institutions, organizations and events.

Consider the colonial Tryon Palace in North Carolina, which had a problem: People would come by for a visit, and then check it off their list and never return. The site was building a new North Carolina History Center, and Schlossberg was hired to design it and, with hope, get people to come back for return visits. His concept: Give visitors a role in an interactive game in which they can relive the past—and create it so that they have a different character and experience each time they stop by.

And then there’s Schlossberg’s incorporation of tech into his creations. Working on the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion, dubbed the Dream Cube, Schlossberg constructed a completely transparent building out of recycled materials and filled it with thousands and thousands of LEDs. The patterns of the lights on the exterior would reflect the movements of those inside. The public was also invited to take photos around the city and send them in, and they were incorporated into the experience. As Schlossberg told Shanghai Daily, “Modern life is characterized by interactivity in the widespread use of computers and the internet. This is what we wanted to encapsulate in the Dream Cube. Visitors are not just presented with a story, they’re invited to participate in the story. It’s a metaphor for how we all collaborate to create the future.”

For the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, Kennedy always wanted it to be a place where people could get a sense of life in the Senate. So Schlossberg delivered just that: He designed an exact replica of the Senate chambers. Visitors arrive and are given a day in history, who they represent, and then they’re sent to the floor to negotiate and vote on the bills of the day—viscerally bringing government to life for patrons young and old who likely previously read about its inner workings in a dry social studies class.

As for Schlossberg’s approach to design at large, in 2009 he told Nature, “If you put a bucket of water in front of a child—2 years old, 5 years old, even 8 years old—they will play with it forever. They learn a lot because they can craft a range of experiences as they integrate their sensory and physical worlds. I try to design like that.”

All told, Schlossberg’s firm, ESI Design, has been around for more than four decades. In addition to his day job, he has written numerous books, and produces fine art pieces often characterized by infusions of text.

For his varied work and output and approach, Schlossberg has often been dubbed “a Renaissance Man.” But such connotations carry with them the trappings of the past, notions of the antiquated. And Schlossberg has always been a bit of a man of the future—intensely ahead of his time in a way that the Plimptons of the world couldn’t exactly see in their era, actively working on those fireworks that would become recognized disciplines in design as the value of experience and interactivity rooted themselves in the profession.

One wonders what Schlossberg sees when he looks at the world that has been designed around him. Something he could improve? Possibility? Everything? Nothing?

One also ponders when he began to trust the media as he opened himself up to interviewers over the years.

As he says in this episode, “Not quite yet.”

Zachary Petit

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