For more than four decades, New York City-based Robert Sonneman has been at the forefront of modern lighting. Renowned for clean lines and innovative approaches, Sonneman's sleek, award-winning fixtures have become contemporary classics and have been displayed by the Museum of Modern Art, Chicago Art Institute, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, UCLA Exhibition on Design, Karnette County Art Museum, and the Houston Contemporary Arts Museum. In 1967 he launched his own lighting company under the Sonneman brand, which in 2003 became SONNEMAN–A Way of Light.
YLighting: How did you get into lighting design?
Robert Sonneman: Three days out of the Navy at age 19, I answered an ad in the New York Times to work in a lighting store. That store was George Kovacs on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and I was hired as the sole employee.
YL: Who or what has influenced your aesthetic?
RS: When I started, modern design was firmly rooted in the European notion of the Bauhaus industrial aesthetic. Those of my era were all trained as Mies van der Rohe disciples and believed in the mission of distilling an object to its functional essence and minimal simplicity. Less was always more and the aesthetic value was derived from what we saw as the honesty of the functional form. This was true whether it was pristine glass boxes that housed corporate offices, bent tubular chairs to sit on, or minimal stem and base lamps to read by.
YL: How did the invention of LED technology expand your vision?
RS: Design is often evolutionary and only rarely revolutionary, but today technology has created a revolution. LED has invited rethinking of the form factors, size, and scale of luminaires. We are now combining design innovation and the science and control of electronic illumination to change the forms of the objects we create to bring light to a task.
YL: What are some of your favorite designs over the years?
RS: Orbiter, L'arc, Feather, Big Mack, Floating Glass, Vienna, Bankers Lamp, Plinth, and Quattro.
YL: You also did furniture design. Why did you ultimately decide to focus on lighting?
RS: Sonneman Design Group was an active industrial design and architectural consultancy with an extensive client base for decades. We designed furniture, appliances, housewares, plumbing fixtures, ceiling fans, and other home-based consumer products.
YL: What inspires you?
RS: Everything inspires me; walks in cities, architecture, restaurants, bars, cars, stores, magazines, and mostly just working. I love the process. I am always excited to start new projects and investigate the next idea. I am driven by "what's next", so I am very fortunate to be so engaged by the challenge and its process.
YL: What's on the horizon for Sonneman?
RS: Despite the history, legacy, and age of its founder and creative driver, Sonneman is a company at its beginning. This is the dawn of the place I always wanted to be in creatively because technology has burst open the possibilities of imagination.
YL: Which of your designs would work well in a space that's more traditional rather than modern?
RS: The most modern works with the most traditional and the most traditional works with the most modern. Break the rules!
YL: What are some of your favorite Sonneman products on YLighting?
RS: QUATTRO®—One of my all-time favorites. It's pure geometry and it's impossible to improve on solid geometry. What we achieved from a mechanical and technical standpoint with flat panel and optical sensory was revolutionary. That set the standard of quality going forward and that's the level we want to strive for in everything we do.
YL: What's your creative design process?
RS: In my early years, concept development was a process of investigation and discovery that often involved wandering in foreign cities. Putting myself in new places and situations would ignite a unique feeling or vision about the experience or sights that I would encounter. I immersed myself in the process and had to do that alone. I would capture a perspective, an essence that became a point of view. Establishing a point of view is the most critical component of concept development. Once identified, the design activity flows naturally as does emotional response to its perspective. I have often said that design comes more from what you see than what you think. Like any creative process, design results from how you perceive, sort though, and interpret stimuli.