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, Editor-in-Chief, Design Matters Media
Debbie Millman: How do you turn a space into an experience? How do you make someone's visit to a store, a museum, or a stadium into something memorable? Good architecture helps. There is also interactive design combining the physical world with the digital. Edwin Schlossberg specializes in creating interactive, immersive experiences.
He started in 1977 with the Brooklyn Children's Museum. With his firm, ESI Design, he's been innovating ever since with projects like Sony's Wonder Technology Lab and Barclays Center. He's here today to talk about ESI's 40th anniversary and also his own artwork. Edwin Schlossberg, welcome to Design Matters.
Edwin Schlossberg: Thank you.
Debbie: What I'd like to read you an entry dated Sunday, November 29th, 1981 from the diary of Andy Warhol. He wrote this. "There's a new place downtown called AM/PM. I saw on the paper that Caroline and her new boyfriend, Edwin Schlossberg went there the other night.
"And I remember our old friend Roberta from the '60s who is the Supremes groupie who taught art at Columbia saying, 'Oh, you've got to meet this absolutely brilliant boy, Edwin Schlossberg, he's so brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.' Caroline likes funny people.
"He probably was babbling intellectually, and she got fascinated, he was probably saying strange, peculiar quotations or something." Edwin, did you know about this? Did you ever meet Andy Warhol?
Edwin: Yeah, many times. Actually, I made a film called "Making Visible" I think two years before that for KQED and San Francisco. He was in it. It was all about how technology makes visible the things that we think are in our head between us. Yes, I knew him.
Debbie: What was your impression of him? What was it like working together?
Edwin: He was always really quiet and always said really interesting things. He was really brilliant, I thought.
Debbie: I guess he thought the same about you. [laughs]
Edwin: Maybe. [laughs] You never know.
Debbie: You grew up in New York. The son of Orthodox Jewish parents. In fact, your dad was the president of your local synagogue. I also grew up in an orthodox Jewish family. How much has that influenced you?
Edwin: I'd think probably a lot. There are things about Judaism that are really interesting to me like that people refer to Jewish people as people of the word. Words have always been really interesting to me. The idea that the purpose of religion is to sanctify daily life which seems really an interesting thing to do, to really appreciate everyday life.
The idea that you need no intermediary religious practice in order to have a word with God so that the idea is always put some of the responsibility on self. I think that's really interesting. And the idea how funny Jews are.
Debbie: Why do you think that is?
Edwin: Probably because they've had to deal with really difficult things and laughing and humor is key to everything I think about.
Debbie: Do you consider yourself to be a funny person?
Edwin: Yeah. [laughs] I would hope so. I really see everything as being funny.
Debbie: Your father founded a textile manufacturing business, and I understand he worried that you would starve if you pursued an artist's life. Did he want you to follow in his footsteps?
Edwin: I don't think he wanted me to be in textile business, but I think he thought that I should have a more professional career.
Debbie: Doctor or lawyer, sort of Jewish kind of...
Edwin: Exactly. My grandmother every single time I saw her she would take my hands and say, "Surgeons. These are surgeon's hands."
Debbie: Let me see your hands, Edwin.
Debbie: In your book, "Interactive Excellence" you wrote this, "Ever since I was a child I have been as interested in the audience as I am in the show." What were you imagining your life would be when you grew up?
Edwin: I didn't know. I went to college and learned things, and I then went to graduate school. I was always just so curious about how to describe the world. I think that one of the implicit assignments people get is this idea of finding something interesting and then telling it to someone else. That sort of was my job I thought.
When I met Buckminster Fuller, I don't know, I guess in '76 or '77, and the thing that was so interesting to me was he thought that he could make a difference in the way the world worked. I thought that's a worthwhile project. That's really interesting. He loved the idea.
He had invented this thought about world game, where world leaders could play a game together and therefore solve world problems. I thought that was really interesting. I wound up running the world game program with him, so it became of a fantastically interesting opportunity.
Debbie: You stated that you learned a lot from Buckminster Fuller, both negative and positive. You said that he was fantastic at writing menus, but he wasn't interested in cooking dinner. Was he a big picture kind of guy and not into the details? Is that what you meant?
Edwin: Yes. He wasn't so interested in looking at the people after they ate dinner and seeing whether they were smiling. I decided I would be.
Debbie: He was more conceptual, I guess?
Debbie: As far as I can tell, you met him through John Cage?
Edwin: Yes. An organization called the Foundation for Performance Arts that Jasper Johns and Bob Rauschenberg, and Merce Cunningham founded. There was a thing called Nine Evenings of Art and Technology, and several people spoke at it. This was probably in '68 maybe '67.
That event was the first time I met Bucky because after these speeches Bucky and John Cage and Merce and Peter Yates and Marshall McLuhan all spoke at this thing, one Tuesday, every Tuesday for seven weeks. It was unbelievably interesting. They were like the most interesting people I had ever heard speak.
It was a dinner afterwards at Jasper's house, and so I went to that dinner, and that's when I had a long conversation with Bucky.
Debbie: You have three degrees from Columbia University.
Debbie: You have your Master's degree, you have your PhD in Science and Literature. Why Science and Literature?
Edwin: Because I thought it would be really challenging to be able to both appreciate people imagining different ways of communicating verbally and also to try to be able to describe the physical world. Both of those things seemed to me to be interesting ways to learn about the world, and so I thought I would try to connect those two disciplines.
Debbie: I read that back then, in 1968, you said that you wanted to roll the earth flat and then sell tickets for the show. What does that mean?
Edwin: That was Buckminster Fuller's idea, which was that he wanted to create a game that people could play. That was a sort of metaphor of that idea, but John McHale was an amazing artist who became Buckminster Fuller's sort of right‑hand man.
He and I wrote a book together called "Projects for an Immoral Future" which was like ways to improve the world. But it was a humorous book. One of the projects was to roll the earth flat and then be able to look at it.
Debbie: When you were working on the game concept development, Ron Feldman, your gallerist stated this about the experience, "That was Ed game‑playing. Education and a great concern for humankind." What gave you the sense that being able to articulate futures through game playing was something that could give you a sense of humanity?
Edwin: It seemed to me that one of Bucky's ideas in this book called "Spaceship Earth" was that we were living in a closed system. Even though everyone thought we were living in New York or Boston or China.
That if you couldn't orchestrate models of how the entire environment and the communication systems and everything worked, it'd be very hard to optimize and make people feel as if it was all one thing that we needed to pay attention to.
It seems like a really worthwhile idea to try to figure out ways in which the interdependency of things really made sense. That's why I'd start doing this world game workshop with Bucky. But it was also ironic that it was also the first time that human beings stood on the Moon to see the Earth and could see the whole thing at once.
I think that moment was a kind of, for me, a critical moment to figure out that you needed to figure out tools that enable people to understand large interdependent systems.
Debbie: It was around this time that you were also making your own art. You created a piece titled "WORDSWORDSWORDS" which consisted of an aluminum box containing poems printed by a variety of different methods on a number of different materials. The last poem was printed on four sheets of Plexiglas, and it fragmented when it was picked up.
In "Art International Magazine" critic John Russell said this about the piece, "It is about poetry, but also about the physical act of reading poetry." Then you stated, "I hope they see the words and then I hope they see themselves," which I thought was gorgeous. What did you want to show them about themselves?
Edwin: Just that seeing words as a place in which you were actually assembling ideas is more interesting than seeing it as if it's something passively that you look at and just think about either the associations of words or just their form.
I thought it was interesting to see it as a dynamic piece, because words are really the history of people's agreement about things that we all agree that when I say word, you'll know what I mean. The derivation of that has drifted away. I think people aren't so interested in the act of reading as a compositional thing rather than just say an assemblage of thoughts.
Debbie: I interviewed Steven Pinker on the show recently and we talked about his belief that language is an instinct, but that writing isn't.
As you were developing your art over the years, over the decades now, how have you approached words? How have you approached language? Are they one and the same for you, or is speaking and written language something very different for you?
Edwin: In a ironic way, writing is much more of a social act, because it requires an imagined conversation in your head, whereas sometimes speaking like now, I'm not preparing what I'm saying fast enough so it's just being created. The active reading is always social because typically you're assembling things because you know someone else that you could tell it to.
Rarely we really learn things or go places or do things if it wasn't someone else that we were thinking about telling about it or sharing it with.
What I was trying to do with my art was making experiences that were actually engaging, and that would make people either laugh or smile or get serious about something that they were thinking.
Debbie: I read that you once wrote down everything that you know on a series of 52 canvases.
Debbie: How were you able to fit everything that you know?
Debbie: You're pretty bright guy. [laughs] How did you do that? Really small type?
Edwin: I saw a volume of what is called the [inaudible 12:13] which was in the third century BC China, the Emperor commissioned everyone who could write in China to write everything that they knew for a year, and then they would assemble all these books and the format of it was all the same. It was like there was one big character had characters and then the writing about that character.
I took that as my assignment for a year to pick words, and then write about them and draw and scribble other things about it as I proceeded, and that was the book.
Debbie: You've said that it thrills you that scientists are able to see neurons in your art, is what we might see if we could witness the process of thinking itself. I want to talk a little bit more about what you mean by that because is it possible to think without words?
Edwin: I think most of your thinking isn't in words. I think most of it is from neuronal processing that's going on. It comes out as words because you think to share it. How the brain works is so phenomenally interesting that we can only know that as an abstract pattern now.
Debbie: What could we see as the process of thinking in your art or in any art?
Edwin: Hopefully, the piece that you describe, each of the letters is broken up into fragments and then put on one sheet of Plexiglass so that when you look at it straightforward you see it all. The minute you move once from one side to the other it all falls apart.
Debbie: You're playing with perspective?
Edwin: What I was trying to do is getting you to assemble that. A series of pieces that I did also were on mirrors talking about you looking at this idea and thinking about it.
Debbie: How much fine art do you still do today?
Edwin: In the last two or three years, because my wife was the Ambassador to Japan, and so I went back and forth to Japan every month or so, I couldn't get anything accomplished because I didn't know where I was in the world. [laughs]
Debbie: I read that you were going back every three weeks.
Edwin: Every three weeks, yeah.
Debbie: That's incredible. Your frequent flyer miles must be insane.
Edwin: It's amazing that I'm still alive, actually.
Debbie: She's back now.
Edwin: She's back.
Debbie: Now that she's back, are you back in the studio making art again?
Debbie: What kind of work you're doing?
Edwin: I just started doing a series on assignments that I was going to give to the readers.
Debbie: Can you give us an example?
Debbie: Edwin, that's not fair.
Edwin: Because you have to see it. I can't.
Debbie: That's fair enough. I get it. Back in the '70s, you were a co‑author of some of the earliest handbooks on home computers, CB radios, and pocket calculators.
Your co‑author, John Brockman, said this about your books, "Ed was not so much interested in pocket calculators as in broader issues. Whenever a new technology came into being, we were there with a book." I have a couple of questions for you about this.
First, what broader issues were you interested in? Second, what gave you the idea to publish a book about games you could play on a calculator?
Edwin: I was having dinner with my aunt Helen, and she took out her reverse Polish notation Hewlett‑Packard calculator to show everyone at the table that she had it. I said, "Helen, what are you going to use it for? This is really sophisticated tool."
Debbie: [laughs] Yeah.
Edwin: She said, "Well, once a month I do my taxes." I figured there was a lot of time left when people who have bought these calculators, which are really cool, and which allowed you to do a lot of calculation and interesting things and they had nothing to do with them. I figured it'd become a consumer product.
I thought, these games, each one of them will be directed towards learning something new about math in the process of playing the game.
Debbie: Do you remember any of the exercises off the top of your head?
Edwin: A lot of them. One of the funniest ones, the name of the game was California Dreaming. The instructions were, enter seven digits, stare at it until you forget your name.
Debbie: [laughs] OK.
Edwin: It was a joke, a bad joke.
Edwin: Anyways, a lot of the games were...
Debbie: It was a bestseller, so everybody must have thought it was funny.
Edwin: Yeah. It sold millions of copies.
Debbie: I know. There were two sequels.
Edwin: Yeah. Unbelievable.
Debbie: The books were incredible bestsellers translated into eight languages. You essentially turn the calculator into the first game boy, but in a way that made people interact with others using their calculators versus them playing by themselves.
I was curious, how important do you think the notion of community is in gaming now versus a user paired to a single device?
Edwin: The idea of play in human culture has always been the way in which we practice new ways of being interdependent with each other, learning skills, playing with one another.
Gaming is a fantastically valuable tool and learning how to play with others now at a distance, but I think soon much more all in the same place is a critical social tool. The idea of understanding the consequence of action, like I was talking about world game.
We did this world game workshop and the reason why it couldn't really go farther than a workshop was because there was no data and there was no assemblage of information that you could actually play the game and make the outcomes meaningful. Now it is.
Gaming allows people to imagine that they're not themselves, and so they are playing as a role in something, and then really learning something different than they would maybe let themselves do if they thought it was something of theirs.
That's one of the things about interdependency and social experience, which is that you're always imagining who you're talking to and you're imagining what they're thinking about it. It gets people to realize that an idea is only valuable if it's between people, rather than in their head.
Debbie: Do you think that all games give you the ability to be someone else or is it just electronic or computer games?
Edwin: No, I think clue.
Debbie: That's true.
Edwin: Monopoly. Any game, poker. If you look at people playing poker they always have their poker face on. It's different them.
Debbie: You can always see the tails. That's one of the things I like most about Poker is seeing the person through the game.
Debbie: Early in your career, you've said that you would conjure up designs and leave them to be executed by others, but they didn't always come out right, which led you to want to start your own company.
Yet you always said you never set out to a designer, and yet you are one. What happened to change your mind?
Edwin: You become the thing that you want to be. I couldn't claim to be a designer when I was starting because I hadn't designed anything. When I got the job to design the Brooklyn Children's Museum, I had never designed anything, which was amazing.
Debbie: How did you get that job? How did that happen?
Edwin: [laughs] I was helping a friend of mine who was running the White House conference on children, and I organized how the discussions were going to go at this conference.
I sat down at a table and the man next to me was a man named Lloyd Hezekiah who was the director of the Brooklyn Children's Museum. We sat and talked for probably two hours. He asked me, I gave him, we exchanged information and then he called me and asked me to come to the Children's Museum and then I got the job.
Debbie: You had to start a company around that job?
Edwin: I started the company when the Children's Museum opened. I got the job in 1970. It took seven years to get the Children's Museum opened.
Debbie: You started ESI Design in 1977.
Debbie: Today you employ around 60 people.
Debbie: Congratulations on 41 years in business. A design firm turning 40 years is just an extraordinary feat. What do you attribute to your success and longevity as a designer in this incredibly changing landscape?
Edwin: Probably because I had no idea what I was doing.
Debbie: No. I won't take that as an answer.
Edwin: I was interested in the assignments and the challenge of designing something because it was like solving a complex problem. It was so interesting to do that. The problems that I have been assigned have been spectacular, and I've had amazingly great clients. That's part of what that means. I didn't have a model of what having a design office meant. I didn't really understand that.
George S. Kaufman used to say that if you do anything long enough, they'll build a theater around you. I think that that's more of what having this office for 41 years is like. I think we're good at it now.
Debbie: You've always been slightly ahead of what's happening technologically. How have you been able to stay on top of what was going to impact our culture through the decades?
Edwin: We now have a phenomenal group of people who were paying attention to what's going on in the world and looking at possibilities.
One of the things is so interesting is Brooklyn Children's Museum, I really wanted to have computing. We had this idea of doing a child recognizer, because you could detect at that point in time with very little data you check the stride, weight, and profile.
We could have recognized you and then when you came in back in the museum, it would say, "Debbie, you've done a good job." We wanted that happen.
It turned out that the computer that we needed to process that cost one $1.5 million and the total budget for the museum was $1.8 million.
Debbie: How much will something like that cost now?
Debbie: Exactly. [laughs]
Debbie: Speaking of longevity and bringing our conversation back to my first question when I referenced Caroline, you began dating Caroline Kennedy after meeting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where she worked. Your wedding to her in 1986 was a massive affair, Carly Simons saying journalist George Plimpton narrated a firework display.
Over all, did it phase you or your work to be threshed so powerfully and suddenly into the spotlight?
Edwin: Probably. [laughs] It was all of a piece. It's like you start dancing at six o'clock in the afternoon and then eventually it gets a bit dark and the stars are out. That's what happened.
Debbie: That sounds like a picnic not a wedding to a very, very famous family and a very, very critical time in our culture.
Edwin: Yeah. It's been a great experience, the best part of my life.
Debbie: You refused to grant interviews around that time and there are even stories in the "New York Times" of reporters dressing up as waiters at restaurants to try to get to you. Why did you want to keep this a low profile for so long and when you begin to open yourself up a little bit more to the media?
Edwin: 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?
Debbie: When did you start to feel like you could change or trust the media or that it wasn't all fake news?
Edwin: [laughs] Not quite yet.
Debbie: [laughs] OK. Let's talk a little bit more about some of your clients. You have had clients that include Pope John Paul II, Reuters, the World Trade Center.
When you first started working on the Brooklyn Children's Museum as we mentioned, your ideas about design and interactivity around the public space were pretty radical.
As an example, you created a playground based on the structure of a molecule. How much convincing did you have to do to get people truly on board with what you were proposing back then?
Edwin: When I look back on that, I think it was astonishing. I got no resistance whatsoever.
Debbie: For the first time out of the gate for a design project and something that big, that's pretty remarkable.
Edwin: Yeah. I don't think anyone had an idea frankly about what I was doing.
Edwin: No one had seen an interactive museum before. The idea that it was a constructivist learning environment where you did things rather than you manipulated things of what's already done or that the past was the precursor of the few, all those ideas were just not in anyone's head.
Even today when we do drawings in our office and we do even renderings or animations, I'm not sure anyone's ever seeing the design. It's very hard to really understand exactly what it's going look in three dimensions and how all the pieces are going to work.
I am astonished to this day that the board who are lovely people, brilliant wonderful people just said, "Oh, this is great. This is going to be really fun."
Debbie: When you worked on the Los Angeles Children's Museum, you created bears and dogs that wouldn't do anything until a child touched them.
Debbie: You described it as a cultural place that says, "Without you this is not functioning." Given how little we are actually able to interact in most museum settings, how did you encourage the children to actually want to touch the animals?
Edwin: It was a giant big bear and a giant big dog and a huge tree.
The idea was is that when the children came in to the museum for the first time, and then subsequently later in the day, it would always look like the first time that they came in and they'd have to wake up the dog, bear, and the tree and everything, by feeding it and getting on bicycles and blowing wind on it and cranking up lights to put sunlight.
The environment never worked. They had to be the vehicle through which active participation happened.
Again, it's this thing about understanding the dynamic role that human beings play in making an environment work. I love the idea that this place needed them in order for it to...
There used to be a group of toys called Tommy Gotyous. I don't know if you remember them?
Debbie: Yes, I do.
Edwin: Which you had to take care of. This was a place that was a Tommy Gotyou. It was a model of the environment. There was a project that we did all the design work for them and then they never could raise the money to build it.
Debbie: That's tragic.
Debbie: How much do you think the way in which children play and the way in which they interact both in museums and out has changed with the advent of social media and our dependence on devices?
Edwin: I think there's just an enormous amount of less silence, a zero state when you're wondering and that's amazing. It fosters a sense of interdependency among people, which is really critical, but yet people have less of a sense of agency that what they do makes a difference.
Debbie: Why do you think that?
Edwin: They're working at a distance from other people, and all the things we work out are projects that try to create a sense of agency among the people working in the environment.
Debbie: You created Hanna‑Barbera Land. A cartoon themed amusement park just outside Houston and you designed a DoSeum, great word, that demonstrates principles of animation and television.
One attraction, you are a star let visitors project themselves into cartoons with Hanna‑Barbera characters is Yogi Bear, and Boo Boo. This work is inherently interactive. It does require participation.
How are you able to project into people's minds and anticipate what and how they're going to want to participate in something?
Edwin: The first step of a design process, of a project for us, is to try to think about what the invitation is going to be to this experience. How someone would feel or understand what they were coming to experience.
The experience would be involving, engaging with them, so that you feel as if when you would go to this place it's not going to be something that you passively can walk by. It's something you can engage with and that there is a consequence of your actions.
Debbie: How can you create an unforgettable interactive experience that is remarkable for different kinds of people? Are there common denominators in terms of that seductive nature of encouraging somebody to participate?
Edwin: There are all different kinds of invitations. One of the projects which I'm most excited by and pleased by is the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate which just opened, not just, will be three years in March. It is a full‑scale replica of the Senate Chamber.
It's 100 people at a time go into this environment and each of them is a senator. They receive all the information about a certain day in the Senate, and the bills that are up for being passed or not passed. They have to figure out how they're going to work together to make it happen. It takes three hours. It is a remarkably compelling experience for all the high school kids that come and do it.
We also made it so that the platform on which this institute works, the scripts for all the different days in the life of the Senate are made by other high school kids. All the work is being done collaboratively both either composing the work or playing the work.
The level of engagement of people having to take stand up and defend policies that they don't like because they want to learn how to collaborate and how to reach consensus is a thing that I think is a critical ingredient of contemporary life.
Debbie: A critical ingredient of our being able to prosper as a society and as a culture.
Debbie: How do you plot the journey that people take through these types of experiences? If somebody starts here they're going to go there? If somebody starts there, then they move there? Is that something you think about?
Edwin: Yeah. We do storyboards, we use small storyboards of all the different players in the game and how they work with one another.
Debbie: All four of your great‑grandparents were Ellis Island immigrants who were born within 50 miles of one another in Russia.
Debbie: ESI was chosen to design the Ellis Island American Family Immigration Center, giving people a chance to interact with the exhibits and find out if their own families passed through the gateway to the United States.
You said that your whole life began on Ellis Island. I think it's a really beautiful line. How personal was that project for you?
Edwin: It was a knockout. It was just amazing.
Debbie: From what I read, and I wasn't exactly sure how this happened, but you ended up finding your own families names through the interaction and the data that you were given?
Edwin: I didn't know for sure because stories lean on facts. I didn't know for sure when they had come and exactly how old they were when they came.
Ellis Island is the best boundary in the world in the sense of having information because they not only asked name and age and sex, but they asked where you started from, where you embarked from, where you were going, and what were you carrying with you?
The thing that was so astonishing about that one question was that somewhere like 40 or 50 percent of the people brought tools with them. That's what they brought with them. They brought writing tools. They brought chisels. [laughs] They brought woodworking tools.
Debbie: So they'd have something to be able to make a living doing?
Edwin: Yes. There were people who knew they had to survive and that they were all skilled in crafts. It's an amazing lesson about what the huge benefit of immigration is to the countries that people immigrate to. All the people who came, came to work and to make things.
Debbie: You found in the database the name Abraham Hirsch and he was a grandfather who arrived in New York Harbor in 1903. What was he carrying?
Edwin: He was carrying his tools for prayer and he was carrying eight books that he had handwritten.
Debbie: Did he come by himself?
Edwin: I don't remember exactly. I think he came with three brothers and two cousins and one adult.
Debbie: As a Jewish man, what was it like working for the Pope?
Debbie: How did you get the job?
Debbie: It's very open‑minded of the Pope.
Edwin: The Cardinal from Detroit was in charge of the project. He called up one day and said he'd like to see me. I went to Detroit to see him. We talked about doing the job and then he said, "If you do a really good job, you might go to heaven." I said, "I don't believe in heaven..."
Edwin: "...so is there anything else you think you...?"
Debbie: You still got the job admitting that you don't believe in heaven?
Debbie: They must have really wanted you to do. Did you get to meet the Pope?
Edwin: I did.
Debbie: What was that like?
Edwin: It was amazing. It was also amazing to go through archives at the Vatican. That was one of the more amazing events of my life.
Debbie: In what way?
Edwin: So many amazing treasures are sitting there in this archive which is not air‑conditioned or environmentally controlled. It's eight stories below the ground in the Vatican. We went through one room and someone pulled out a drawer, I went with the director of the archive, and he pulled out a drawer and there was a letter from Peter. [laughs]
Debbie: Peter who?
Edwin: St. Peter on papyrus just sitting in a drawer.
Debbie: I'm surprised it hasn't disintegrated?
Edwin: No, because the humidity never changes in this place. Nothing. No air changes. The temperature never changes. Humidity never changes. That's a very good thing for keeping things going.
I asked the head of the archive, there were a lot of things I wanted to display in the museum. I said, "Do you have an inventory that I can look through because that would accelerate our ability to do it?" He said, "We have seven percent of our work inventoried and about five percent that has been annotated."
I said, "Excuse me if this sounds disrespectful, but you've had it for a long time."
Edwin: "How come so little?" He said, "What's the hurry?"
Debbie: I love those kinds of existential moments.
Edwin: Yeah. That was huge.
Debbie: That's incredible.
Debbie: What else did you see that blew your mind?
Edwin: Seeing the map rooms. I'm obsessed with maps and they have maps. The idea that a church or religion would basically own all the maps on Earth [laughs] is really interesting.
Debbie: Your recent work on the historic Terrell Place lobby in Washington, DC is really beautiful. Your team created 1,700 square feet of colorful digital scenes using five million LEDs that cover the walls, things like gleaming cherry blossoms, multicolored tapestries, butterflies.
Not only are the scenes motion interactive, but they're crafted using algorithms to ensure that they are always unique and original.
It made me think that everything you do feels somehow personal to these people that are passing through this space because they are never ever going to be seen again. How do you deliver experiences that are so personal?
Edwin: Our office is filled with astonishing people and the team together is composing these experiences. A really good composition is one that is multi‑voiced and also multi‑intentioned so that you know that you are talking and speaking and making things with lots of people in mind.
The Terrell Place thing is also cool because we put cameras in the ceiling and people moving through the space actually interrupt the flow of the media and change it all the time, so that you feel as if you're amongst the drivers of the experience in the room that you're in rather than thinking of it is something that's autonomic and it doesn't have anything to do with you.
Debbie: Actually, I think, the word "personal" was probably wrong in that question. It was really more intimate in terms of this ephemeral nature of life and living in time and you're going through this interactive display, this lobby, and nothing will ever be repeated. There's something really wonderful about that and also really heartbreaking.
Edwin: I haven't thought about the heartbreaking part. The rest of it that was the goal.
Debbie: Where does interactivity fail us?
Edwin: If you think that, it's more than that. [laughs] The idea that something has been composed to be interdependent and interactive is because the goal of the company that paid for it and the space and the designers was to make something that would be surprising and engaging and also not repetitive.
Since most of the things we do people go back and back and back over and over again. It's to make life more natural, which is it's never really predictable.
Debbie: Apple is now doing some research in trying to understand what our relationship is with our devices and just how addicted we might be. Any idea as to what their findings might be?
Debbie: Do you worry about your own relationship with technology given that you work so deeply in it?
Edwin: I'm so happy that I have my phone when I need it, and I'm very happy when I turn it off and don't pay attention to it.
Debbie: In 2011, Barack Obama appointed you to the US Commission of Fine Arts. What kind of work does this entail and are you still doing anything with that?
Edwin: No. The Fine Arts Commission judges the designs for all the buildings in Washington. They also judge the coins that are made by the mint, and they judge some of the gardens and some of the other aesthetic work in Washington. It was interesting to do that in the number of really interesting designers and architects who have been on that commission.
It's really fun to do it. I did it for three years and then when my wife got appointed to be Ambassador to Japan, I resign because if I had to go on one more plane trip I would have died. I had to stop.
Debbie: My last question is one about how you refer to yourself. All through your life you've been framed as a Renaissance man.
Edwin: That means old.
Debbie: No, it doesn't. [laughs] You were afraid to answer.
Debbie: You were afraid to answer Renaissance man entered into our house diary. [laughs] To this day would be a fair assessment of your varied output. It really would be. How do you see yourself? Do you see yourself as an artist, as an interactive designer? How would you describe?
I read that you once scoffed at this type of question and answered that you are a nuclear accountant because it doesn't mean anything.
Debbie: Do you still feel that way today?
Edwin: Yes, I feel the same way.
Debbie: How do you describe yourself besides from a nuclear accountant?
Edwin: Independently healthy.
Debbie: OK. Fair enough. Thank you for answering that question. [laughs] Edwin Schlossberg, thank you for the many, many contributions you've made to art and design and culture. Thank you for joining me today on "Design Matters."
Edwin: It's been fun.
Debbie: Happy anniversary. 40 years, that's big.
Edwin: Thank you.
Debbie: You can find out more about Edwin Schlossberg in ESI on their website, ESIdesign.com.
This is the 13th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.